Dams and Environmental Refugees

Last updated Jun 4th, 2020


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Possibly the first ever “environmental refugees” in this part of the world was caused by a huge hydroelectric project in Chittagong Hill Tracts (Samad, 12 November 1994, Environmental refugees of CHT, Pg 2).

The socio-economic condition of one-fourth population of the hill people was affected by the construction of the hydro project.

The Kaptai Dam (popularly known) inundated 253 square miles, including 10 square miles of reserved forest.

Nearly 54,000 acres of plough land that was about 40 per cent of the district’s total cultivable area submerged under the biggest human-made reservoir named Kaptai lake.

Homesteads of 18,000 families; approximately 100,000 people were displaced from their hearths and homes of which 70 per cent were ethnic Chakma community (Bangladesh District Gazetteers: Chittagong Hill Tracts, 1975, Dhaka, Chapter VI, Economic Condition, Page-126). The population of CHT in 1961 was 385,079, according to national census.

The Karnaphuli Multi-Purpose Project submerged 40% of the rice bowl of the hill forest and displaced several sections of the indigenous population.

Perhaps 40,000 “environmental refugees” migrated to India (Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and Arunachal) and another 20,000 migrated to Burma. Today many of them are in northeast India. Citizens neither of India, nor Bangladesh.

In the aid-game of “Green Revolution” to produce more food and industrialisation, the US government built a hydro project damming the Karnaphuli river.

The American company selected by USAID studied neither the social nor disaster impact. The “green revolution” was biased towards farmers and elites residing in the plain land.

The rehabilitation programme was inadequate and half-hearted. A government publication however claims rehabilitation, resettlement and adequate compensation to the displaced hill people.

“[I]n consideration of the backwardness of the tribal people of this district as for the sacrifice that they made for good of the rest of the country, government took up the responsibility to compensate and rehabilitate the displaced persons.

A majority of the displaced families have been rehabilitated on the upper reaches of rivers Kassalong and Chengi and also a certain percentage has been rehabilitated in other non-submerged areas of Bandarban and Ramgarh subdivision (now district).

The rehabilitation scheme envisages the economic rehabilitation of the people on a sound basis.” (ibid, Page-126)

The government publication (ibid, Page-88) however admits that the hydro project caused negative impact on the agriculture (damaging 40% of cultivable land) and economy.

The average jhum (slash and burns agriculture practice) cycle before inundation by Karnaphuli valley was 7 to 10 years or even 20 to 25 years, which did not cause serious deterioration to the fertility of the land.

But submerging of jhum lands has been mainly responsible for the shortening of the cycle to 3 to 5 years.

This has resulted in declining soil fertility, low yields from jhum land, and quick erosion and consequent soil degradation.

The ethnic minorities were not consulted before the hydroelectric project was built, nor their resettlement and compensation was adequately met.

In the subsequent years, their anger about Kaptai Dam turned violent, as they demanded self-rule in Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The military regimes since 1975 compounded matters, forcibly settled nearly 400,000 landless peasants from the plainland into the hill forests.

Kaptai was a “killing dam”, as some describe the hydroelectric project. Constraints of budget allocation discouraged rehabilitation of majority of the displaced population.

The largest concentration of the rehabilitated persons was at Kassalong, where the reserved forest had been deforested and the plainland was made available to them (ibid, Page-88).

“The tribal sacrifice for the project was not duly compensated,” says Ali Haider Khan.

Then a young relief officer responsible for the displaced hill people, later Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong, he expressed this view to this writer in 1980.

The government of Pakistan resettled the displaced hill people with inadequate budget, at a certain height, determined by the dam project engineers.

When the hydroelectric project came into effect in 1962, the water level submerged most of the resettled hill people.

The American hydrologists calculated the wrong height of water rise inside the catchment, which is the picturesque Kaptai Lake.

To the amazement of many, the US consultants and Pakistan government officials recorded in the document that the ethnic minorities are nomads and practice “jhum” (slash and burn agriculture).

They explained that the nomadic ethnic communities migrate after each five or seven years cycle

from one hill to another. Therefore, it will be a difficult task to rehabilitate or resettle the “nomadic” hill people at a permanent place.

Nonetheless, the question of resettlement or rehabilitation does not arise.

The foreign consultants assumed that the hill people would move away to another hill for “jhum” and need not be resettled.

Abbreviated from essay published in Dams.org

Writer :Saleem Samad

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