The Yangtze River Project and Migration to Urban Areas


There has been much evidence that human history and the development of cities from smaller entities have often been centered on important sources of water. In the case of the Yangtze River which is the biggest river in China, there is no exception (China Culture 2003). However, this river that supplies water to millions of people has been the subject of many debates over the past two decades. The Chinese government decided to construct the Three Gorge Dam, the largest dam project in human history, on this river forcing hundreds of thousands of people off their traditional land.

In this essay, I will attempt to uncover some of the consequences of rural migrant flows into urban regions. The areas that will be touch upon include land, compensations, employment, housing, poverty, government mismanagement and politics. Before beginning, there will be a background overview of the Three Gorge Dam project, the flooding and the resettlement plan to contextualize the current situation.

Three Gorges Dam Project

Since 1997 there has been the construction of the Three Gorge Dam also known as the Sanxia (China Culture 2003). This dam consists, as its name implies, of three dams, the Qutang Gorge, the Wuxia Gorge and the Xiling Gorge that are located in the Anhui also called the Wanjian section of the river (China Culture 2003; Anhui News 2009). This immense project was put in place in order to meet the energy demands of the rapidly growing Chinese population (Mansour 2000).

One of the arguments made to support this project is that it would help reduce the need to turn towards the use of coal which is a declining natural resource and furthermore, that is known as being far more polluting than hydroelectricity (Mansour 2000). In addition to the obvious fault in this theory which is that despite the electricity that the Three Gorges Project will be providing there will still be a great need to increase the production of energy, this project carries environmental problems, forces displacements and change migration patterns in this area of China (Mansour 2000). For the sake of this essay, the focus will be put on the movement of population caused by this project from rural to urban.

Flooding Plan

The flooding is one of the main reasons why people are forced out of the area where the Dams are being constructed. It has been predicted that between the construction of the Sanxia, which begun providing energy in 2009 but will be fully completed only by 2011, there will be the displacement of approximately “1.3 million people by the year 2008” and 300,000 people from 2008 to approximately 2028 and then 200,000 in the 50 years preceding that (US EIA 2009; Mansour 2000). This drastic change in demographics will definitely have its consequences.

During this flooding a great portion of the relocated population will lose 44,000 hectares of farmland on which the depended, some for centuries (Mansour 2000). There is bound to be some sort of social instability when there is any sort of relocation, something that can very easily rise as the number of people being relocated goes up (Heming et al 2001; Jing 1997). In this instance, the approximate 1.3 million people that will be relocated within less than a century will cause many issues that will transgress the local to the national.

Resettlement Schema

Jin Jun, a “former journalist and researcher at the Institute of Sociology”, makes the argument that both sociologists and anthropologists should have been consulted before and during the construction of the Three Gorge Dam (Qing 1994). One of the relocating attempts made by the Chinese Government was to relocate the affected population to higher land away from the flooding area. Quing points out that when people are moved from highly fertile land to “less arable land” they lose their “self-sufficiency” (1994). The author does however admit that the real problem in this situation is that the socio-economic environment of China will worsen the situation of those being relocated even if there is an attempt to compensate those who are being moved (Qing 1994).

A family followed for the documentary Up the Yangtze had a similar account. One of the parents’ main concerns with the relocation was the need to find work rather than working on the land he is used to in order to survive (Chang 2007). This Qing states, will create a “culture of poverty” where the relocated will learn to depend on the government for survival (1994). This kind of argument has been made in other situations where ethnic minorities are given money rather than thought skills.

Although the goal is to keep this essay focused on the human impact on such a large scale development project, there are some aspects to be taken into consideration with regards to the environment and how it may affect the lives of millions living in the lower grounds of the dam. A significant threat is the soil erosion that has managed to make itself in the river banks (Perry 2000; Yang 2007). Furthermore, if the new technology integrated in the Sanxia dam fails to allow the sediment to pass through the dam, the cost will be millions of lives (Perry 2000). Thus, in this sense, the project will not only disrupt the socio-economic life the relocates, but it also has the potential of killing them along with others.

Urban Relocates

Now that the basics of the Three Gorge Dam project, the flooding plan and resettlement schema have been briefly discussed we can move one to the major issues with relocating a rural population into an urban area. Now we need to see how compensation errors, general mismanagements on the part of the Chinese government, poor land allocations, the lack of employments and low standard temporary government housing have put the displaced people in a tough situation where poverty, homelessness and discrimination have become a reality of life.

Some of these social consequences of the damming project have already been discussed above, such as the displacements required, the drastic demographic changes and the poor quality land allocation. Those issues and others will now be addressed more stringently, to show how those who were relocated into urban regions or who themselves went into urban regions, rather than living in the areas developed specifically for their relocation, live and survive.

Before continuing however, I believe it is important to point out that China’s demographic is dramatically different to that of North America. Without going into the details, I believe it is imperative to consider the fact that the terms “urban” and “rural” both hold different meanings in China than in Canada. With approximately 40 percent of the population working as farmers which is a very large chunk of the total population, and approximately 2 million households without electricity in 2009, it is plain to say that “urban” means having the luxury to flip a switch instead of lighting a candle, amongst other things (CIA 2008, Xinhua 2009).

To resume, those who expected the best possible outcomes of the Three Dam Project have been repeatedly disappointed. The Chinese government made promises of compensation for those who were to move, but due to several reasons, including political corruption, the money hardly made its way to those in need (Perry 2000; Wong 2007). This along with other general mismanagement and neglect on the part of the government contributed to the social instability by causing quarrels within the group of relocatees since some received sufficient compensation and others received none (Heming et al 2001). In addition to that, the government received complaints that the land allocation that was promised to those being displaced was either never given to them or of far less inferior quality making it difficult for them to reap any benefits from them (International Rivers Network 2003)

Another problem associated to the Chinese Government’s management of the project is its failure to be transparent, honest and realistic with the expectations of the implemented “relocation plan” (Qing 1994). Nonetheless, China’s record of failed relocation programs should leave no surprises with the outcome of this one, the largest ever done within its history (Qing 1994). To be fair, it should be mentioned that this issue also relates to the availability of productive land for those being resettled which in densely populated countries has a tendency of being of very poor quality (Qing 1994).

Now to understand why and how the rural people live on the banks of Sanxia there are two groups of people that must be discussed. The first group affected are those who were relocated in rural areas where it is near impossible to grow anything (Perry 2000; Yardley 2007). This created a situation where people felt compelled to leave the new settlement areas designated for them and to migrate to other areas. There were two trends at play here: many went to the city while some went back to their land .

The second group is the relocated population that was moved directly into the urban areas. Out of those who move into the urban areas either by force or by choice most are peasants and many have rarely or never entered urban regions and are consequently in a situation where they do not have the proper training to hold industrial employment (Chang 2007; Ferraro 2007). These people faced two different difficulties. The first is that they feel like strangers to the new communities into which they were introduced forcefully (Heming et al 2001). The second is their new neighbours are unwelcoming. Consequently, they are marginalized in the urban region and face constant discrimination (Ferraro 2007).

This rejection in the urban area along with the difficulties the relocated population faced in finding employment, enticed many to return to their land, joining those who initially chose this option (group one) over moving into the city despite the fact that they no longer have a right to be on that property (Yardley 2007). This of course would not be an issue if their land was not to be flooded in a near future. Since this is not the case, the government is still undergoing changes of plans that could better satisfy the relocated population (Yardley 2007).

It is absolutely essential that the government find a solution to this issue since the majority of those who moved into urban regions in 2001 lost their jobs (Heming et al 2001). Although the exact reasons why are unclear, factors such discrimination and the lack of proper skills to effectively hold factory jobs seem to contribute to the issue.

Something else that should be taking into account in this discussion of employment problems is that the large majority of the people who have been relocated have both their “jobs and social fabrics [that] are bound to the surrounding natural landscape and climate” (Allin 2004). Denying people the right to continue to live this way essentially means they are being denied the right to work, since their lands are gone, and their social fabric[1] is being destroyed. Furthermore, in China, the people do not own the land – the state does (International Rivers Network 2003). In rural areas however, land is managed by the peasants who farm collectively. Donating land in random and infertile regions prevents them from using the ties they already had to work the land as a group rather than as a family on its own.

However, despite the fact that some of the relocation areas are forced onto those living in the reserve zones some still have a choice as to where they would like to live. Many of them chose to live in the city because they believe they would have better opportunities there than in another rural area (Heming et al 2001). As has been demonstrated, this decision can easily make them a lot more vulnerable than if they decided to move into another rural region where they are more familiar with the farming mode of production. Nonetheless, this decision appears to be the only way to avoid living on allocated land that is less than fertile – at the price of being discriminated against.

In an interview conducted by Melissa Chan from Al Jazeera, a displaced man explained that there is a problem of unemployment and housing and the elderly who receive a minute 25$ per month (Chan 2010). In addition to this, some relocatees are offered temporary accommodation that is below standard[2] (Chang 2007). This obviously drives this population to return to their previous homes despite the flooding, as mentioned several times above. Furthermore, this very low income for those who cannot work seems to be a contributing factor in homelessness. Although the officials claim their priority is to help the displaced farmers, there are still some, who today – six years after being displaced, are in the streets of unfamiliar cities (Chan 2010). Despite what the officials say, similar stories have been recounted by many journalists with the victims ranging from the elders to children (BBC).

While the Chinese government is trying to create the illusion that it is doing all it can to prevent these situations of homelessness from occurring it shares the blame in many respects. According to a report published by the International Rivers Network, in 2003 there was still a significant amount of people who needed to be relocated (2003). Because of the inadequate estimations and project implementation on the part of the Chinese government, funds meant for compensation ran short forcing the evacuated people to purchase houses far beyond their means (International Rivers Network 2003).

Despite the fact that the government is facing many difficulties due to false estimations, it still has an agenda that goes beyond finding new homes for those it has been displacing. In addition to those being relocated in order to flood the Yangtze, the government plans on relocating an additional 4 million Chinese rural residents into the city in order to support the growing industry (Yunlong 2007). It has thus been taking advantage of this opportunity to encourage the rural inhabitants of the Yangtze River to migrate towards cities. Though this is not as directly linked to the relocation and resettlement schemes as the other issues discussed above it does point out that there are even more people moving into the city with the lack of proper social and economic support and this will just worsen the current situation. This definitely highlights the government’s eagerness to go through with the failing relocation plan. As Samuel Robert Fishleigh Allin (2004) stated in a paper submitted for his master’s degree in urban affairs and planning:

The social systems that are moved, created, or destroyed require far more attention than the traditional approach of providing resettlement money and new homes.

This quote quite effectively captures the major problem with this project in terms of human consequences. The Chinese government, however, seems to be focusing on the Anhui area that is annexed to the Yangtze River bank where the three dams have been constructed as an area development area of interest (Anhui News 2009). The eight cities that make up the area happen to contribute approximately 50 per cent of the provincial GDP (Anhui News 2009). Efficiently increasing the population in this urban region and providing employment for recent relocatees means the government could potentially increase in annual income.

With all this confusion and mismanagement there is a very large portion of the rural to urban relocatees, 47 per cent, who do not believe the relocation has benefited them or will benefit them, 8 per cent that did believe the relocation was or will be beneficial and a significant 45 per cent who did not wish to share their views (Heming et al 2001). Of the problems here is that state policy favours urban resettlement over rural settlement. This is one of the reasons why rural relocatees get less compensation and poorer living conditions (Heming et al 2001).

While there is more and more research being made on the issue with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, ranging from social to environmental, there is still a lot of gaps of information. For example, some of the most vulnerable people in many societies, included rural China’ societies are women (Allin 2004. Yet there was nothing to be found covering their specific situation in during and after the relocations.

To concluded, this essay has hopefully effectively demonstrated how the lack of compensation, land allocation, the mismanagement of resettlement plans and low standard temporary accommodations have all contributed to the “impoverishment” and social instability of the relocatees in urban regions (Heming et al 2001). Those undergoing these serious social changes are those with no political voice on the matter. Furthermore, the Chinese government has efficiently censored information it does not want its citizens and the rest of the world get a hold of. In this instance that information is the real opinion coming from those they interviewed, the relocated or to be relocatees. After the completion of the dam, we will really be able to determine the consequences of the massive project. Until then, we will have to rely on the little information the People’s Republic of China’s government.










Allin, S. R. F. (2004, November 3). An Examination of China’s Three Gorges Dam Project Based on the Framework Presented in the Report of The World Commission on Dams. Research Paper for Master of Science in Urban Affairs and Planning at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Retrieved from

Anhui News. (2009, September 15). The Coordinated Simultaneous Development of the Gity Belt along the Yangtze River. Anhui Daily Press Group. Retrieved from

BBC. (2007, October 12). Millions Forced out by China Dam. BBC. Retrieved from

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (2008). China. CIA. Retrieved from

Chan, Melissa. (2010, January 30). China’s Yangtze Dam Displace. Al Jazeera.

Chang, Yung (Producer), Yung Chang (Director). (2007, September 30). Up the Yangtze River [motion picture]. Canada: Eye Steel Film.

China Culture (2003). Yangtze River. China Daily. Retrieved from

Ferraro, Vinnie. (2007). China’s Three Gorges Dam. Retrieved from lecture notes online web site:

Heming, Li, Paul Waley and Phil Rees. (2007, September)Reservoir resettlement in China: Past experiences and Three Gorges Dam. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 167, No. 3, pp. 195-212. Retrieved from

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Jing, Jun. (1997, July). Rural Resettlement: Past Lessons for the Three Gorges Project. The China Journal, No. 38 pp. 65-92. Published by: Contemporary China Center, Australian National. Retrieved from

Michael Mansour. (2000). Assessing sustainable development of Three Gorges Project. Research paper for M.B.A. at Concordia University. Pp. 8-17.

Perry, Ellen (Producer), Ellen Perry (Director). (2000). Great Wall Across the Yangtze. United States: PBS.

Qing, Dai. (1994). Yangtze! Yangtze! Ed. Patricia Adams and John Thibodeau. Translated by Nacy Liu, Wu Mei, Sun Yougeng and Zhang Xiaogang. Toronto: Probe International Earthscan. Pp.46-259.

US Energy Information Administration: Independent Statistics and Analysis (US EIA). (2009, July). China Electricity. [Data file]. Retrieved from

Wong, Susanne. (2007 February 1). Three Gorges Resettelers Lose Out to Corruption. World Rivers Review. Retrieved from

Xinhua. (2009, October 3) China reports 2 mln households without electricity. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved from

Yang, Lin. (2007, October 12). China’s Three Gorges Dam Under Fire. Time. Retrieved from,8599,1671000,00.html.

Yardley, Jim. (2007, November 19). Chinese Dam Project Criticised for their Human Cost. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Yunlong, Sun. (2007, November 27). China reaffirms the relocation of another 4 mln not for Three Gorges Dam. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. Retrieved from

[1] The use of the term “social fabric” is being used here as being destroyed because of the Chinese government neglect in resettlement plans. According to Heming, many people were moved in areas where they were far from family and friends who once lived nearby (2001).

[2] In Up the Yangtze the main characters of the documentary happened to be a family that was given temporary allocation in a building with very low standards. Their apartment basically consisted of a very large room with not much else (Yung Chang 2007).

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