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When development undermines livelihoods

Arriving in a Tajik village for families being resettled, Khorsheed, a mother of five, quickly realized that her lush vegetable garden and fruit orchard—her key food sources—were a thing of the past. Lacking land in the new village, she was also forced to sell her cattle. “Now my children beg me to give them fruit,” Khorsheed said. “I have to try to distract them with sweetened tea. The children want milk, but now I have to buy it and it is expensive.”

What happened to Khorsheed is a sadly typical example of the adverse impact infrastructure development can have on vulnerable communities.

Tajikistan, a mountainous country just north of Afghanistan and west of China, suffers from critical energy shortages in cold winter months. The government is pursuing the development of the Rogun Dam and Hydropower Plant to increase energy supply and bolster the economy. This is not just any dam, but potentially one of the world’s tallest, at a planned 335 meters — slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower.

To make way for the dam and reservoir, the government resettled 1,500 families and may displace 42,000 people overall. Despite government commitments to protect the people it resettled, many families have lost farms, orchards, and pastures. They have received neither compensation nor replacements. Most families have found themselves resettled to places where they have insufficient land and an inhospitable climate that prevents them from engaging in agriculture. The government did not consistently provide the families with timely and accurate information about grievance mechanisms and remedies, as required by national and international law.

The World Bank conducted two feasibility studies on the dam, one of which concerned resettlement. The studies, published in 2014, make clear that resettlement is going to be a major impact of the dam and that restoration of people’s livelihoods needs to be a priority. This is good. On the other hand, there are some big gaps. While the studies considered international environmental laws, they did not cite international human rights instruments that should guide resettlement in a rights-respecting manner. And from people’s experience so far, the resettlement is not going well.

This was a missed opportunity for the World Bank to show leadership on this issue.

As the Group of 20 and multilateral financial institutions show a growing penchant for large-scale development projects that require governments to forcibly relocate people,  many families — and often whole villages — are driven into acutely vulnerable situations. Governments and the financial institutions that support these projects should ensure that economic development efforts do not undermine or violate basic social and economic rights that are the basis for sustainable development. If they do not guard these basic rights, they risk undermining the very progress they hope to achieve.

Jane Buchanan is associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Click here to read full Human Rights Watch report “We Suffered When We Came Here”: Rights Violations Linked to Resettlements for Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam.

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May 2017
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