Establishing a Global Database to Analyze the Social Impacts of Dams: Problems and Prospects

Bryan Tilt, Jody Hepperly, and Huaxia Zhong, Oregon State University (Bend, OR) Establishing a global database to analyze the social impacts of dams: Problems and prospects

The last century has been marked by the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people, often driven by factors beyond people’s control. Population resettlement to make way for infrastructure development projects “for energy production, natural-resource extraction, conservation, and urban expansion” is a major part of this story. Within the energy sector, hydropower dams, which represent a major source of renewable energy around the world, have displaced at least 40 million people over the past century, often with little consideration of the social impacts on individuals and communities. For the people who live along rivers targeted for hydropower development, many of whom belong to culturally or economically vulnerable groups, dams cause displacement and resettlement, lost farmland, unemployment, and disruption in social networks and community well-being.

A group at Oregon State University, along with collaborators from other institutions in the U.S. and China, has been studying the social impacts of dam construction around the world. As part of that effort, we have developed a database of approximately 500 dams, with corresponding variables about population displacement; effects on fisheries, farming and other livelihood strategies; and compensation programs. In this presentation we reflect on our research questions and describe some of the problems and prospects involved in building and maintaining the database.

Methods and Results:
The database allows us to address at least three major research questions:
1) Geographic: Are resettlement outcomes different in different countries or regions?
2) Temporal: Are resettlement outcomes getting better or worse over time?
3) Institutional: Are resettlement outcomes different under different management authorities (e.g., international financial institutions, domestic government agencies, private firms)?

In the process of undertaking this research, we have faced a variety of challenges about acquiring information, assessing its reliability, structuring the database to allow for collaboration with other scholars, and maintaining public accessibility of the data. We describe each of these challenges and how we have dealt with them.

Discussion and Conclusions:
Our experience has implications for scholars around the world who seek to understand the social impacts of large infrastructure projects. Hydropower development continues to gain momentum as a significant source of renewable energy around the world; depending on institutional factors and available financing, social impacts may be overlooked, misunderstood, or discounted. We use our experience to make recommendations to policymakers about how to understand and mitigate the social impacts of dams and other energy-development projects. We also reflect on the lessons we have learned and the implications for social sustainability more broadly.