Settling Accounts: The Ethics of Development-Induced Displacement

July 22, 2014   •   By Jake Flanagin

THE TINY, MOUNTAINOUS Republic of Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia. Remittances from Tajiks working in Russia account for the lion’s share of gross national product. According to the World Bank, nearly half of its population lives at or below the poverty line.

The landlocked former Soviet republic wedged between China and Afghanistan leans heavily on hydroelectricity to power its grid, which remains inadequate to people’s needs. The latest plan to add capacity is to dam the Vakhsh River, displacing tens of thousands, and scenarios like this one, and others playing out in Central Asia and across the developing world, raise a crucial question about infrastructural buildup: under what conditions, if any, is it ethical to displace people for the sake of developing public works? Do the quotidian conveniences of the masses outweigh the entire livelihoods — and in some cases, cultural identities — of a few?

The energy Tajikistan harvests from the system of rivers crosshatching the nation is an effective method of power generation during the summer months, when deluges of melted snow cascade down from the Pamir and Alay Mountains, engorging the rivers and strengthening the currents that drive hydroelectric conduction. But during the infamously harsh winters, when rivers ebb or freeze over entirely, electricity and artificial heating are rationed to only a few hours a day. Consequently, the poorest Tajiks (unable to afford private, gas-powered generators) resort to wood- and coal-powered stoves to heat their homes and prepare their meals. Aside from being energy inefficient and resource intensive, these stoves have serious health repercussions for those who use them — asthma and other respiratory ailments, potential birth defects when pregnant mothers are overexposed to smoke, and, of course, lung cancer.

Understandably, the Tajik government has sought out ways to guarantee sufficient hydroelectric power year-round. The plan to conserve surplus snowmelt by damming the Vakhsh, a major artery that cuts across the Tajik heartland, will bring much-needed power to thousands of households, even in the depths of winter. But as with similar projects undertaken in China, Turkey, and other developing and emergent economies, it will inevitably uproot a number of entrenched, locality-dependent communities.

Forty-two thousand families living along the banks of the Vakhsh will be displaced before the Rogun dam becomes operational. World Bank funding for the project (which, at 335 meters, will be the tallest dam in the world) is contingent upon the Tajik government’s successful resettlement of families residing in flood zones. But, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports: “Despite government commitments to comply with international standards on resettlement that protect the rights of those displaced, it has not provided the necessary compensation to displaced families to replace their homes or restore their livelihoods.”

A report compiled by the agency includes interviews with Tajik citizens who have been specifically disenfranchised by the project. Khorsheed, a mother of five, was forced to ask neighbors for loans when it became clear her family’s assigned resettlement community in Dangara was too arid to sustain the kind and level of subsistence farming they are accustomed to. “Now we must go to the bazaar and pay [for] even the most elementary things,” she said.

Saghar, a mother of three, often keeps her seven-year-old son home from school. Her resettlement site in Rudaki has no educational facilities, and the on-foot commute to a neighboring village is long, dangerous after sunset, and bitterly cold in winter.

For Hurmoz, the compensation package provided by the government was hardly enough to comfortably shelter his family of eight: “I got 60,000 somoni [$12,500] […]. I had to sell everything of value — all my animals, my car — to complete our house. In the old place, we had a house with six rooms. Here, we have only two.”

Furthermore, rivers like the Vakhsh provide upwards of 90 percent of Central Asia’s water. Tajikistan is upstream from communities in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, and there are concerns that major damming will deprive riverside communities of water necessary for agriculture, their own hydroelectric projects, and, eventually, basic necessities like drinking and bathing. Or at least equip Tajikistan with undue jurisdiction over a most precious resource.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov says the Rogun dam will “give Tajikistan unfair control over water resources,” according to The Economist. Tajikistan’s desperate lack of oil and natural gas is a key element of Tajik-Uzbek disputes over transnational water rights. Uzbekistan has the oil, Tajikistan the riverheads.

Karimov, the first and only elected leader of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, has a habit of casually interrupting the oil and gas flow to Tajikistan when the neighboring republics squabble. He has “halted gas exports to Tajikistan multiple times in 2012,” reports Eli Keene for the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Think Tank blog, “which many interpreted as an attempt to punish Dushanbe over the Rogun dispute.” And there are fears that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon will respond accordingly once vast stores of regional water are under his control. But in this battle of wills between Central Asian leaders, the casualties will be ordinary Tajiks and Uzbeks, not members of the political elite.

“The standoff over the dam reached new intensity in [2012],” Keene writes, when Karimov, on a state visit to Kazakhstan, “declared that water disputes in Central Asia had the potential to lead to war.” Rahmon can avoid conflict by “shifting his focus away from Rogun and toward improving the country’s existing energy sector,” Keene advises.

Unfortunately, “Tajikistan has few immediate options but to attempt to develop its hydropower assets” over fossil fuel resources, writes John C. K. Daly for Silk Road Reporters, a nonprofit news agency covering Central Asia. “Only seven percent of Tajikistan’s land is arable, and the US government estimated that the country’s 2007 oil production was a paltry 280 barrels per day. In 2006, Tajikistan produced only one billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas, forcing it to import 44 bcf to meet demand.”

A similar dam project in Ethiopia, christened Gibe III, threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of people living in the lower Omo Valley. This so that the region can be irrigated and used for farming cotton, palm, and sugar. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which provides the largest package of aid to Ethiopia annually, maintains guidelines similar to the World Bank’s for funding development projects like Gibe III. But despite frequent visits by monitors from the multinational Development Assistance Group (DAG), residents continue to be intimidated by private developers involved with dam construction — forced to sign over their land, if not forcibly evicted without compensation, according to Survival International (SI), a London-based advocacy group for tribal peoples. “DAG has decided to return to the Lower Omo later this year to investigate the situation,” SI reports, “even though the evictions continue regardless of past donor visits, the findings of which have often not been published.”

In Brazil, conversion into farmland of the once densely forested Mato Grosso do Sul region, largely for cultivating sugarcane ethanol, has resulted in the mass displacement of the Guarani-Kaiowá nation, inflicting severe spiritual damage on a people once intimately connected to their land.

“Destroying vast swathes of forest has left many Guarani squeezed onto tiny patches of land, either in designated reserves or by the road, where they drink water from plastic tanks and polluted streams,” writes Joanna Eede for The Atlantic. “Gone, for most, are the forest gardens where they planted manioc and corn; gone is the ability to freely hunt game. The impact of this land loss on the physical and mental health of the Guarani people has been profound.”

Life expectancy for the Guarani is almost half that of the average Brazilian, Eede reports. And their rates of “malnutrition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide” are correspondingly high.

Some groups, long since removed from their ancestral territories, are fighting back. The Huron-Wendat Nation, currently residing in Quebec, historically occupied the Canadian side of the eastern Great Lakes, where energy delivery company Enbridge is undertaking two multimillion-dollar expansions of oil pipelines. The Ontario provincial government is embarking on a major highway development project in the area as well. According to Vice’s Tim McSorley:

The Huron-Wendat […] signaled their intention to file court injunctions against both Enbridge's $690 million gas pipeline expansion in the Greater Toronto Area, and the Ontario government's multi-billion dollar expansion of Highway 407 East. […] At issue is whether the Huron-Wendat were properly consulted under their constitutional rights and under the principle of free, prior and informed consent as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Canada is a signatory.

The fact that they were not properly consulted, McSorley writes, is “an oversight that shows just how far Canadian governments and corporations still need to go to reconcile their vision of economic and resource development with the country's ongoing legacy of colonialism.”

In the anthropological community, these particular instances of internal displacement are known as DIDR — “development-induced displacement and resettlement.” Typically, in order for a project entailing DIDR to receive funding from international bodies, such as the OECD or World Bank, governments must meet a number of criteria laid out by human rights ethicists — the most popular being a set compiled by Peter Penz, former director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Canada.

In a seminal article on resettlement ethics published in a 2002 issue of Forced Migration Review, Penz expands on a core principle of ethical DIDR — that displaced communities must be fairly compensated by government agencies for the inevitable financial and psychic aggravation inflicted by resettlement — adding that those displaced must “share in the benefits of development, not simply receive compensation.” Those Tajiks displaced from their ancestral homes along the Vakhsh are being compensated, though not all “fairly,” according to the HRW report. And most are not “sharing in the benefits” of hydroelectric development. In fact, the project is causing direct harm to many.

Resettlement communities in Rudaki, where Saghar now lives, are located downstream from the site of the Rogun dam project — meaning, like communities in neighboring Central Asian republics, regular water flow to the region may be at risk. Resettlement communities in Dangara, where Khorsheed lives, are already in a region of Tajikistan that receives significantly less annual rainfall than the Vakhsh Valley. Thus, its resident farmers rely on irrigation and alpine runoff to water their crops. The more water that is diverted to power hydroelectric dams, the less there is for Tajiks in these drier regions to subsist on.

People have been living along the Vakhsh, and its stem, the Amu Darya, since before the Sassanid era — surviving nearly 2,000 years without electricity or radiators or dams. The rivers, however, have been there from the start. They are linchpins of regional civilization. The manner in which the Tajik government is handling resettlement boils the dilemma down to another crucial question: what is more essential to a society — a working light bulb, or a potable glass of water? For displaced Tajiks (and Ethiopians and Brazilians), that glass is looking half empty.


Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times covering global opinion and commentary, human rights, and international affairs.