Learning the Lessons: Three Case Studies of Resettlement and Compensation

Rudo Sanyanga and Ange Asanzi
The Bui dam, in Ghana
The Bui dam, in Ghana
Photo courtesy of the Bui Power Authority

Each time we encounter a community of dam-displaced people, we can’t help but find a common thread of sadness. It’s an understatement to say that dams have impoverished people. In fact, dams do much more than that: They destroy the social and cultural fabric of a community. They erase history and offer no future to those affected. And usually the builders make no serious attempt at compensation.

In some recent dam projects, however, compensation or resettlement agreements have actually been drawn up and implemented. But it’s a fallacy to think that it’s easy to resettle people and compensate them for all the things – tangible and intangible – that they’ve lost. Resettlement is complex; the process does not simply involve a one-off payment or the provision of “modern” accommodation. A long process of preparation and equipping communities for the change is absolutely vital, as shown by the experiences of three communities affected by the Bui, Bujagali and Lesotho Highlands Water Project dams.

These three resettlement and compensation programs provide important lessons – and cautionary tales – for all future resettlement programs on the continent of Africa.

 Disappointment in the Wake of Bui Dam

The 400 MW Bui Dam was built in a national park in Northwest Ghana; it displaced 1216 people. Negotiations for resettlement started prior to the dam construction, when people were informed that they would be resettled and compensated for their losses (assets and livelihoods). One community, Dokokyena, refused to move, challenging the resettlement package and insisting on assurances about the fate of their land and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a dialogue, the government sent soldiers to evict the people. Led by their chief, the community refused to move and took the case to court. The case is still pending, but in the meantime the government has withdrawn education, health care and other services, simply because the villagers refused to move. Worse still, this community has not yet been compensated for portions of their fields that have already been flooded by the Bui reservoir.

The communities that were compensated have been disappointed by the way things have turned out. The government failed to deliver on many promises made during consultation. We found the following issues:

  • The monthly payments they’ve received so far are said to be inadequate and do not match what was agreed upon during negotiations.
  • Women who used to earn a living selling field produce did not receive cash compensation, as they were not considered heads of households.
  • Some lost infrastructure was not replaced. For example, the resettled were provided with one church building instead of several churches for different denominations.
  • The resettlement compounds do not include a chief’s palace – a significant facility for these communities that symbolizes rank. The chiefs have lost their traditional roles and respect since their dwellings are the same as everyone else’s.
  • The agricultural land is much smaller and much less fertile than what they had before.
  • Communities have lost easy access to the lake for fishing.
  • An alternative livelihood scheme that was to offer new skills training was never implemented.

In short, the communities affected by Bui Dam feel that many promises and agreements were never honoured. Their income has dwindled because they can’t carry out the same work they did while living along the river and in the forest. They claim that there’s no transparency in how the process was handled and they have lost trust. Their young children have migrated to nearby towns to search for employment, and that migration has also eroded their cultural values and social cohesion. One local affected member has complained, “They (immigrants) are impregnating our children and not marrying them – showing disrespect to us. Our young girls are sexually active at a young age, and I no longer have a source of income.”

 A Mixed Bag After Bujagali

The Bujagali hydropower dam in Uganda was completed in 2012 after 18 years of controversy that delayed the construction. In fact, this dam caused so much controversy that it was investigated six times by different international panels to assess complaints. The problems were many, and they included issues around spiritual values and compensation for people affected by the transmission lines or injured during the dam’s construction.

Many compensation claims for the injured are still pending in the courts, while some 50 households have settled out of court. These cases include issues that were not addressed in the agreements, such as homes that cracked from seismic activities. 

Compensation has been a mixed bag, with some successes and other failures. The resettled were promised free water and electricity, but now the communities have been asked to pay for electricity. Only 11 out of 35 households have agreed – the rest cannot afford it. On the other hand, the displaced communities have received vocational skills training in construction, hotel management, carpentry, beauty therapy, hairdressing, motor mechanics and plumbing. Some financing institutions have extended credit to the communities to enable them to start businesses.


The Lesotho Highland Water Project (LHWP) is an infrastructure project comprising tunnels and dams to supply water to South Africa from the highlands. The Lesotho Highlands Treaty compels the Lesotho Highlands Development Agency (LHDA) to pay compensation to communities affected by the project to enable them to maintain a standard of living “not inferior to that obtaining at the time of first disturbance.” 

Lesotho Highlands
Lesotho Highlands
Photo by Gus Greenstein

During Phase I, one community – Ha Lejone, represented by Khabang Lejone – took the LHDA to court to compel them to pay compensation for lost grazing and agricultural lands. LHDA had paid compensation for the period of 1998 to 2004 but has since withheld payments, contending that Khabang Lejone have to satisfactorily account for the payments. Local communities, however, have minimal education and without assistance have struggled to implement an accounting system. The court case has been dragging on since 2012, with LHDA insisting that the community should share their accounts before further payment.

This year International Rivers joined the case as an Amicus Curiae, arguing in the amicus brief that compensation should include training and capacity building for affected communities. These communities are confronting issues they’ve never faced before, and they’re not equipped for them.

A judgement in September 2015 ordered the LHDA to pay a third of the amount with interest, and asked the communities to put in place an accounting system. Once that’s done, the full payment will be disbursed. This may open the way for other communities that are similarly affected in the Lesotho highlands to claim compensation – but the lesson here is that skills and training are really essential for ensuring a better life for affected communities.

 How to Make it Better

Restoring livelihoods is not a piece of cake, especially when the affected groups are not actively involved in the so-called “development process.” Successful development processes must include all members of the society, and decisions should be made after consultation with (and with the consent of) the affected people.

Between 40 and 80 million people across the world have been displaced by dams. Some of the affected people, just like those in Bui, the Lesotho highlands or Bujagali, have lost access to natural resources such as land, water and forests. Today, the majority of dam-affected people do not have skills to seek employment, and they frequently lack education, health care or training to acquire new skills.

Instead of bringing development to communities that need it, large dam projects send the benefits out of the communities, leaving the affected communities worse off than before. Based on the outcomes we’ve seen in the above cases, we continue to argue that:

  • Dam builders and national governments should put in place social safeguards to support the livelihoods of dam-affected people.
  • Projects which displace a large amount of people should be avoided, as it’s difficult to restore lost livelihoods.
  • Public consultation must take place during the SEIA process. Affected communities should participate not as observers but as beneficiaries.
  • Forced evictions should be treated as a gross violation of human rights.
  • Mediation should be provided so that communities fully understand any agreements they sign.
  • Agreements should be very explicit about what compensation is and what it’s for. We recommend that structures should be replaced with structures (e.g. land, houses, churches, schools and hospitals) instead of cash payments.
  • All negotiations should be completed and resettlement should take place before the project starts.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015