Resettlement from large dams – what have we learned?

Resettlement resulting from large dam-building projects can cause trauma and disruption that lasts for years. FutureDAMS has reviewed the literature on this kind of resettlement, looking for new ways to influence social safeguards.

Jamie Skinner's picture
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30 October 2019

Jamie Skinner is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group

One man in a small boat on a reservoir, in front of a large dam

Millions of people have been displaced by reservoir construction around the world and the negative effects this has had on their livelihoods has prompted many questions about the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of large dams.

FutureDAMS has undertaken a literature review of published scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals to establish what the scientific literature has to say about this kind of resettlement, from the first articles on this issue that started appearing in the early 1970s. Remarkably, some of those early analyses remain relevant to this day.

The overwhelming majority of the publications present and analyse bad or inadequate outcomes for resettled people and analyse in depth the cultural, livelihood and gender-related impacts of resettlement due to large hydropower projects. Positive outcomes were much rarer.

In terms of influencing the practice of major donors, the experience of the World Bank social safeguards team during the 1990s, led by Michael Cernea, is evident, not least as he was able to create important bridges between science and policy. Since that period, the multilateral donors have constantly sought to improve their safeguard policies, but there is no accompanying confirmation of improved outcomes for affected people in papers published in scientific journals.

Measuring long-term changes

Measuring development and wellbeing, and how these change over time, is not an easy process. Assessing the changes that occur during an involuntary resettlement event that causes trauma and disruption is even harder.

The literature reviewed demonstrates the challenge of identifying appropriate metrics (revenues, social capital, natural capital, access to services, resettler satisfaction and so on) and shows how some measures of wellbeing can change over long time periods (10 to 20 years).

Further, it stresses the time needed for a new lifestyle to fully embed, the differential responses of community members, and raises the possibility that it is only in the second generation after resettlement that some people may be able to take full advantage of new opportunities.

In contrast, there is little doubt that when resettlement goes seriously wrong, intergenerational grievances, as observed at Akosombo Dam in Ghana, a FutureDAMS study area, can be significant and hard to address.

Resettlement therefore needs to be considered as a multi-decadal process and not the ‘three to five-year plan’ that most programmes involve. Researchers agree that people respond differently to resettlement impacts and opportunities, yet government legal systems tend to approach the issue with a one-size-fits-all approach to compensation and resettlement benefits and assume that needs are undifferentiated within affected communities.

Gaps in the literature

Data on the costs of delivering ‘good’ resettlement and the institutional framework to achieve it remain a gap in the available literature. More money invested per capita may not necessarily deliver better outcomes.

The authors of resettlement impact studies tend to assess with a ‘socio-cultural’ lens, while economic assessments tend to be undifferentiated as to impacted groups (understanding different impacts by gender is a notable gap). Bringing the two approaches together would help to better define the benefits and costs to different beneficiaries impacted by a hydropower project.

The literature is still short on publications that look at individual dam projects ‘in the round’, taking into consideration all impacts – negative and positive.

Researchers could engage more on:

  • Seeking out and documenting good components of resettlement, rather than further describing what went wrong
  • Analysing how institutional frameworks for resettlement and/or levels of finance affect development outcomes, and
  • Identifying metrics and when to apply them – a shared yardstick for measuring outcomes.

At the donor level, effort over the years has been focused on changing World Bank policies and approaches, based on field evidence and collective learning.

The challenge for the next decade is to think through how to influence social safeguards in Chinese investments, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative. This is likely to be the major funder of dams in developing countries in the years to come as the multilateral banks are no longer the dominant players in this space.

This blog originally appeared on the FutureDAMS website.

About the author

Jamie Skinner ( is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group and team leader, water