THE BLOG

Dammed, Displaced and Forgotten

03/27/2015 01:07 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

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When the World Bank planned the Ruzizi II hydropower project on the border of Rwanda and Zaire, it projected that only about 30 dwellings with fewer than 200 people would need to be relocated. "The dam and generating station would have little effect on the daily lives of the inhabitants," the Bank predicted. As it turned out, the Ruzizi II Project displaced no fewer than 15,000 people and resulted in widespread impoverishment, prostitution and disease.

When the World Bank approved the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India, it assumed that the project would displace about 33,000 people. The project has so far forced 350,000 people from their homes and thrown them into abject poverty. "Those who may pay the most direct and extreme price for such failure [of planning] are the oustees," an independent review of the project commissioned by the World Bank found.

The Ruzizi II Project was approved by the World Bank in 1984, and the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1985. The Bank has adopted policies that are supposed to safeguard the interests of the people displaced by its projects, and you would assume that it has learned from its past mistakes. A recent review of the Bank's experience with resettlement has found that this is not the case.

The World Bank's safeguard policy on involuntary resettlement, which has been periodically updated since 1980, stipulates that displacement "should be avoided where feasible, or minimized, exploring all viable alternative project designs." If displacement cannot be avoided, displaced people should be "meaningfully consulted" and enabled to improve or at least restore their livelihoods. The Bank commits to supervise compliance with its policy throughout the project cycle.

The safeguard policies on resettlement and other issues set the World Bank apart from many other financiers. Since 2013 the Bank management has repeatedly promised that it would apply "the lessons of experience and ... the Bank Group's own strict safeguards and guidelines" as it returns to funding new mega-dam projects.

The sad truth is that the World Bank has never bothered to meaningfully comply with the obligations of its resettlement policy. Internal evaluations found wide gaps between commitments and ground realities in 1985 and 1993. Another audit that was published a few weeks ago found that things have not improved in the meantime. The most recent audit found the following:

  • In spite of the Bank's commitment to avoiding displacement, the number of resettlement projects has risen sharply. The share of World Bank projects causing displacement increased from 8 percent in 1993 to 29 percent in 2009 and 41 percent among the projects that were in the lending pipeline in 2009 (and will now mostly be under implementation).
  • The World Bank has no idea how many people its projects actually displace. It indicated a number of 750,000 people in 1985 and of 2.5 million in 1993. By 2009, the Bank had figures for only 204 of the 747 resettlement projects in its active portfolio. For these 204 projects, 3 million people were estimated to be displaced or otherwise affected.
  • In 1996, dams accounted for 63 percent of all the displacement caused by World Bank projects. This proportion dropped sharply when the Bank pulled out of large dams for many years. As the World Bank now has 57 hydropower projects in its portfolio again, the number of people displaced by its dams is likely increasing again.
  • In spite of the devastating impacts of displacement on the people affected by it, the World Bank categorized only 30 percent of its resettlement projects as high-risk operations. As a result, most resettlement projects are not properly reviewed by senior staff. Information about consultations and the implementation of resettlement plans is largely missing from the project files. Even among the projects which prepared proper Resettlement Action Plans, more than 60 percent contained no information on the status of the people who had been displaced. Evidently, the Bank doesn't bother to find out whether resettled people manage to restore their previous livelihoods in practice.

The highest-profile dam in the World Bank's pipeline is currently the Inga 3 Project on the Congo River. The feasibility study which has been prepared for this project claims that the dam and hydropower plant would not displace any people, and that only 84 households would need to be relocated for transmission lines within the DRC. This is again a serious misrepresentation. Seven villages are located within the proposed project site, and the transmission line to the mining province of Katanga will take up 177 square kilometers of land. Even if it follows an existing transmission corridor, it is not credible that only 84 families would live on so much land.

In response to the shocking findings of the recent audit, the World Bank prepared an action plan with the aim to "significantly improve the protection of people and businesses that may be resettled" by its projects. Since the Bank is currently engaged in a process to seriously dilute its safeguard policies, this statement is cynical. Given the experience with such promises in the past, you will trust the Bank's latest assurance at your own risk.

What is true for Bank operations is true for the experience with large dams more generally. In 2000, the independent World Commission on Dams estimated that some 40 million to 80 million people were displaced by dam projects, often forcibly and without adequate compensation. This is the best estimate that has ever been done. It leaves some 40 million people -- equal to the whole population of Argentina -- unaccounted for.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for the World Bank and other financiers, poor people who stand in the way of their projects literally don't count. Time and again, the World Bank has demonstrated that it is not able to resettle people fairly. It should stop displacing people involuntarily in its projects.

International Rivers and other NGOs will continue to monitor and expose the World Bank's role in displacing people. We will support the people affected by the Inga 3 Dam and other projects to stand up for their rights. And we will continue to push for clean energy solutions such as wind and solar which are less likely to impoverish poor people further.