World Development Day: Ignoring the Human Cost

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The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China holds ten world records. It is the largest hydropower plant in the world. It has also displaced well over a million people. This dam was built in order to reduce China’s reliance on coal energy primarily. Though this mega project seemed like it would be a great help to China, the harm of the dam strongly contests its efficacy.

We have to stop being blind to harm caused by irresponsible development projects. All over the world, destructive development is happening at the expense of people’s livelihoods. Yet we let it happen as we tell ourselves “it is for the better good”. Our current economic model of development is unbalanced in its consideration for profit above all else, when in reality development should be about building a better society for all.

The problem begins when we equate profit with success. When assessing the possible success of a project, investors often evaluate the money going in and the money coming out, not the people who are affected. Balance sheets do not capture the true cost of these kinds of development projects.

According to the UN Development Programme, the goal of development should be to expand people’s choice—choices that will allow them to lead long and healthy lives, to educate themselves, and to enjoy a decent standard of living. Instead of helping people, the current models of destructive development often worsens life by impacting the natural resources that many people depend on. A model that values profit over people will never solve the problems of global inequality.

Many large-scale projects like the Three Gorges Dam do not offer communities reasonable alternatives or sufficient compensation. Almost 100,000 people who had left the area initially are now returning because their new settlements were not agriculturally feasible. Some people simply moved to higher ground in order to escape the rising water behind the dam. But after the fill of the reservoir these areas are suffering from landslides and infertility.

“These relocated people sacrificed a lot for the Three Gorges Dam and their living standard dropped,” said Xu Yuming, a researcher involved in planning the program, to the New York Times. “Now we are facing a new challenge of how to improve their living standards. The quality of land is getting worse and worse the higher they go. And there are now more people than the land can sustain.”

Under this model of “development”, a small handful of people profit tremendously, while many more suffer. Twenty three million people have been displaced in China alone by hydropower projects. While investors of the Three Gorges Dam saw stock prices rise 45% in a single day during the project’s construction according to the New York Times. Despite all these profits, displaced communities did not even receive enough money to build new homes.

So how effective are arguments for mega-development projects like the Three Gorges Dam? It is intentionally deceptive to say that development is beneficial to the public, when it starts with drastically changing the lives of the people in the build zone. The most representation should be given to the people who have the most to lose. Instead, negotiation only favors the ones who stand to profit. Affected people should have the right to participate in the decision making processes that impact them, also called the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. Development should respect this right as an industry standard. Instead, it is violated frequently.

But when we only speak about and value a language of profit, we risk eventually being on the unfavorable side of the development exchange. Development focused on genuine progress would treat people fairly and adjust plans to ensure lives are unhindered or at least provide adequate remedy to the harm they have suffered. For World Development Day take time to distinguish helpful projects from destructive development and promote the welfare of rights everywhere.

Learn more about destructive development and hydropower we want to stop:

Say No to the Don Sahong Dam

“A Foreseeable Disaster”: New Report on the Negative Impacts of Forced Displacement Caused by the Thilawa SEZ

Indigenous Futures Submerged by Dams

Braxton Steichen is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara and an intern at ERI. As a communication major, he is studying to work in public relations and advocate for environment and sustainable development. He is passionate about public speaking, fitness, and hiking. 

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