Geography Reference
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established clear guidelines for assessing the social impacts of dam construction in a way
that acknowledges the rights of local people and seeks to mitigate the risks they face.
Such a framework is admittedly extremely difficult to implement in China, where gov-
ernmental policies tend to be top down. As I have outlined, recent revisions to national
policies on compensation to displaced populations represent a major step forward from
China's historically inadequate compensation structure. However, as is often the case, the
trouble lies in the implementation of regulations. The limited resettlement campaigns that
have been carried out thus far in the Nu River Gorge show a basic failure to implement key
policies such as job training.
Public participation presents a range of challenges. Resettled people often belong to
socioeconomic or ethnic groups that have been historically marginalized and vulnerable.
Their assets may be nonmaterial or otherwise unprotected by formal land rights. And the
system of legal arbitration to which they might turn for protection is weak and difficult
to access. Which brings us to a crucial point: hydropower-development projects are afflic-
ted by an ailment that appears almost universal in reform-era China—namely, the lack of
a clear and consistent accountability mechanism. Many of the experts I interviewed about
their scientific activities to assess dam impacts and their forays into policy advocacy ex-
pressed dismay at the lack of accountability. Their carefully collected data, their charts and
graphs, and their exhaustively researched and footnoted reports all seemed to disappear in-
to the bureaucratic morass when decisions were made behind closed doors. For villagers
whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance of these hydropower projects, this lack of
accountability can be alienating and terrifying. Indeed, many villagers expressed a deep
sense of ambivalence: a general confusion about the likelihood that they will be displaced
and about the compensation they might expect—a sense of fatalism and cynicism that sug-
gests “nothing can be done [ meiyou banfa ]” tempered by the tenacious hope that the gov-
ernment is watching out for them.
I have discussed a variety of measures commonly pursued by rural people in the face of
displacement,especiallythepracticeof shangfang ,orpetitioning.Theoveralleffectiveness
oftactics suchas shangfang isdifficult toassess. Ihave outlined various cases overthe past
severaldecadesinwhichdisgruntledvillagers, seekingredress,“lookforanuprightofficial
[ zhao qingtian ]” who will hear their concerns and advocate on their behalf. But the precari-
ousness of this tactic was made clear when Premier Wen Jiabao, whom many considered to
be such an official, was replaced in 2013, and the Nu River projects were immediately put
back on the State Council agenda.
All of this suggests an acute need for political and legal levers to hold government
agencies and hydropower corporations accountable for their actions. Two important frame-
works—EIA and SIA—have evolved in recent years and may hold great promise, although
significant problems in their implementation remain for the time being. Billion-dollar pro-
jects sometimes go from design to construction before any review is conducted; environ-
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