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Manwan Dam: Prosperity or Poverty?

November 13th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Several weeks ago the China Environment News (CEN) ran a story about the human impacts of a dam built on the on the Lancang River in Manwan, Yunnan province in 1986.  The article claims that in contrast to the promises of the dam developers, the Yunnan Huaneng Lancang River Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., that living standards would improve after dam construction, many residents, particularly those relocated as part of the project, actually fell in status from “peasant” to “unemployed.” Some have even lapsed into poverty including, the CEN reporter says, the family pictured below:

In a poignant vignette the reporter describes how this family lives in a house with a linoleum roof, and how the mother must work year round in Shenzhen just to provide them with the bare necessities of life.  The mother happened to have returned home for a visit on the day the reporter arrived, and the family asked the photographer to take this “family portrait.”  The father in the picture was 19 years old when the construction of the dam was in full swing and excited about the prospects of a better future.  But now, 20 years later, even though neither he nor his wife mind doing dirty and odd jobs, providing enough food and clothing for his family has become a problem.

The CEN article prompted a sharp rebuttal from someone whose affiliation is not clear, but is obviously connected in some way with the pro-dam movement.  He contends that CEN got the facts all wrong, and was obviously bent on slandering hydropower construction in China.  Incomes went up in the area after the construction of the dam, but some people’s incomes may not have gone up as fast as others leading to resentments, and what’s more there are a lot of minority groups in the area (and we all know what that means).  He suggests that the CEN reporter was too gullible and had been hoodwinked by local malcontents.  In fact, he says relocated families made out so well they incited the envy of those whose land had not been taken.

Who really knows what’s going on in Manwan, but I think it is very encouraging to see this kind of back and forth about an important social issue in a Chinese newspaper.

I want to leave you with one question: would the pictured family strike Chinese viewers as an impoverished one?  The pro-dam writer claims they are not.  He says they receive at least the minimum living allowance in the area, plus a 600 yuan per year resettlement subsidy.  He says they are better off than many residents, and offers his opinion that it doesn’t look like they have any problems paying for nice clothes for the children.

I’m not really interested in whether they are “poor” under an economic definition, but rather, would they look like a “poor” family to readers of CEN?  Reading this picture from a US perspective, I would say they were poor because of the chicken.  In the iconography of American photojournalism, a free-ranging chicken signals poverty.  The ramshackle house doesn’t convey a sense of prosperity, but I just don’t know how this scene registers with Chinese viewers.  Any thoughts?

Tags: miscellany

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Canada Guy // Nov 14, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are the source of 10 major rivers in Asia and provide water for almost half the world’s population. Yet, according to the IPCC, they are melting faster than any other glaciers on the planet. China is now diverting much of the remaining supplies, leading to shortages in other countries and increased political tension.

  • 2 Greg // Nov 14, 2009 at 2:47 am

    If the father/mother lost work due to the dam, and the mother has to work in a distant city, then they have been negatively impacted financially.

    I would measure the level of poverty by the quality and quantity of food these people are getting. If they are getting sufficient protein, fruits and veggies and “good enough” water, they may not be impoverished. If they are malnourished, constantly ill, etc, they are definitely impoverished.

  • 3 Mark // Nov 15, 2009 at 6:47 am

    By hydro yimin (relocated people) standards, this family still looks pretty well-off. I have seen much worse pictures. Many yimin at the major dam sites along the Jinsha River (east off the Lancang), particularly Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba, have been living under worse conditions. They were moved up the mountains and now live jobless with insufficient access to water and electricity. The majority are undereducated farmers, who often are ethnic minorities, and for the local governments, keen on hydropower revenues and regional development, they are only obstacles. The latter is true for the situation of most Yunnan/Sichuan hydro yimin. While before relocation, a family would typically earn about RMB4000 from agriculture, they now get an annual RMB600 (for 20 years) and a compensation for their lost land equal to the 16 x the land’s average income in the past 3 years. Of course, the past income is estimated and hardly in a generous way. The compensation often doesn’t arrive in time and without being able to find new work, yimin use it up in a few years. The government really needs to do more to reintegrate yimin in the post-relocation stage. Quite a scandal, but at least, the coastal provinces’ future electricity supply is secured.

  • 4 China Comment // Nov 23, 2009 at 3:09 am

    Glad to see you back!

    For anyone who is interested; One of the best academic works studying dam projects and their effects in the Yunnan region is Kristen N. McDonald’s thesis, “Damming China’s Grand Canyon: Pluralization Without Democratization in the Nu River Valley,” which touches a bit on income-level effects in the dam regions.

    Andrew Mertha’s excellent book China’s Water Warriors also touches a bit on that issue.

    Here’s another article on compensation:

    ~China Comment.

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