Singapore/New Delhi: The day after the Indonesian government began to fill the lake behind its new Jatigede dam, Apong sat by the graves of her mother, father and infant son, wondering what to do.

Her village of Pada Jaya and its cemetery will soon be at the bottom of the reservoir and she can’t afford to exhume the bodies and rebury them.

“I can’t just leave them here," she said in the shade of a weeping fig tree, surrounded by eerie holes of exhumed corpses. “But I have a lot of family members to support, no land to move to and no money."

In the nearby village of Jemah, one of the first that will be flooded, the power supply had been suddenly disconnected and locals were busy dismantling their houses and stacking the materials ready to transport to a new site.

In one home, Kesmawati said she hadn’t received any of the 29 million rupiah ($1,970) promised in compensation for her house and plot of land. The field alone, smaller than a tennis court, would cost about 20 million rupiah to replace.

“Of course it’s not enough, but what can we do?" she said, sitting with her 76 year-old mother, Juriah. “Money can’t replace my life here. People helped each other out. Now it’s just memories."

Dam boom

Developing nations are in the middle of the biggest dam construction programme in history to generate power, irrigate fields, store water and regulate flooding. Yet governments are finding it harder to move people, who have become less trusting of officials and more connected to information about the effects of the dams. Corruption and wrangles over payments have stalled projects from Indonesia to India for decades and frustrated governments are increasingly turning to the ultimate threat: Move, or we will flood you out.

Jatigede is the latest example, and it is unlikely to be the last. Indonesia plans to build 65 dams in the next four years, 16 of which are under construction. India aims to erect about 230. China, is in the middle of a programme to add at least 130 on rivers in the mountainous southwest and Tibetan plateau, including barriers across major rivers like the Mekong and Brahmaputra that flow into other countries. It is reported to have relocated people before inundating land.

Like Jatigede, many are financed by Chinese banks and led by the nation’s biggest dam builder, Sinohydro Corp. China is involved in constructing some 330 dams in 74 different countries, according to environmental lobbying group International Rivers, based in Berkeley, California.

“Sending rising waters to flood out people like ​pests​ is barbaric," said Professor Michael Cernea, a senior scholar at the​ ​Brookings Institution in Washington and former senior adviser for social policies and sociology at the World Bank. “Indonesia has the resources and know-how to resettle these people decently."

The relocation programme is the responsibility of the government, Sinohydro President Liang Jun said in an interview on 31 August at the Jatigede dam.

Opening ceremony

West Java governor Ahmad Heryawan said the dam will irrigate 90,000 hectares of land and provide water to Cirebon, a city of about 300,000 people on the northern coast of Java. At a ceremony on top of the dam on 31 August to begin filling the reservoir, he acknowledged that not everyone had received compensation and that thousands remained in their homes.

Those being relocated were “heroes of development, not victims," he said. “We don’t want them to suffer, we want to improve their welfare."

In the villages that are being submerged, they don’t see it that way. In Cipaku, a rice-farming community 10km upstream from the dam, residents were angry and disappointed with a government that took office a year ago, largely on the support of farmers and ordinary workers. “We are staying here till we get what is rightfully ours," said Aden Tursiman, sitting with his mother in their wooden house at the lowest point in the village. “The government needs to stop cheating the people."

Protests against dams have multiplied across Asia as activists mobilize residents and media against large projects and question their long-term benefits.

Himalayan dams

Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans about 200 hydropower projects on the mountainous rivers in northeast India, as well as a programme of 30 large dams that would help link major rivers across the country.

“We are considering approvals for about 20 to 30 hydro and about 15 irrigation dam projects at the moment," said Ashwinkumar Pandya, chairman of India’s Central Water Commission, which gives technical and economic clearances for dams. “Dams are an important aspect of planning and they ensure that water and power requirements for the nation are met."

Officials at the ministry of water resources and social justice department weren’t available or declined to comment on the resettlement programmes in India.

“There is not a single dam—not a single one—for which India has done proper rehabilitation of people," said Himanshu Thakkar, a coordinator for Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “And typically, all of them have seen costs escalate and delays in building."

Disputes over compensation and loss of land are still going on in India for dams built half a century ago, such as the Bhakra Nangal dam in Himachal Pradesh, a pet project of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Many of the protests relate to alleged corruption in rehabilitating residents and allotting new land.

Environmental impact

“If you take into account the time taken to build large dams, the environmental impact, the social costs of moving people and the delays, the sheer effort makes no financial sense," Thakkar said. “There are other more viable sources to generate energy and supply water for irrigation."

Opposition has centered around the Sardar Sarovar dam, north of Mumbai. Members of activist group Narmada Bachao Andola remain in the valley in protest over a decision to increase the height of the wall by 17 meters. Opponents will hold a rally at the site on 14 October, led by veteran campaigner Medha Patkar, a former commissioner to the World Commission on Dams.

Construction of the dam, India’s sixth-largest, began in the 1990s and has affected as many as 200,000 people, many from indigenous tribes. The extension has long been requested by Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister, and will also affect Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

“People are told dams are pro progress, but whose progress?" said Vimal Bhai, part of the Narmada Bachao Andola alliance. “Why should a villager have to give up his ancestral home, land, livelihood and memories to ensure there’s water for those in Delhi and Mumbai to flush their toilets?"

Yet India’s need for crops and power for its 1.2 billion people make dams attractive to state governments, especially in poor regions with low economic output. In the northeast state of Manipur, the government began to fill the Mapithel Dam in January to irrigate more than 20,000 hectares of farmland and generate 7.5 megawatts of electricity for Imphal, the state capital.

Early monsoon

About 12,000 people lived in the valley, and with the early onset of the monsoon, the lake rose rapidly, forcing people to abandon their homes.

“Huge tracts of paddy fields, river, forest and grazing grounds will be submerged," according to a statement from the Baptist World Alliance, whose pastors in the largely Christian area are protesting the flooding. The group said there has been “no proper and comprehensive resettlement and rehabilitation program for the affected villagers."

Building large dams to tame rivers, generate clean energy and irrigate crops has captivated governments since the early 20th century. From the opening of the Hoover Dam in 1936 on the Arizona/Nevada border to the commissioning of the first power generator in the Three Gorges Dam in central China in 2003, dams have been held up as symbols of national achievement.

Yet, over the past decades increasing dissent over the environmental and social costs has called into question the need for many of the projects. The proliferation of alternative sources of clean energy such as solar power, and the development of new, more efficient irrigation systems has further degraded the case for large-scale hydro projects.

“We should still be able to build good dams," said Jamie Skinner, principle researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, a UK-based policy research institute partly funded by governments. “The problem with these kind of examples, like the one in Indonesia, is that they fan the flames of the anti-dam lobby. A good dam is one that affects a small number of people who are properly compensated."

Indonesia’s Jatigede is an archetype of what can go wrong. The $467 million dam will displace about 40,000 people by the time the reservoir is filled in about two months.

Suharto’s plan

First proposed more than 30 years ago by the government of dictator Suharto, compensation was paid to some villagers in the 1980s. Then the project stalled, Suharto fell from power and the farmers went back to their lives.

The programme was revived a decade ago and construction began in 2007 after the project secured financing from the Export-Import Bank of China.

Villagers in the valley were divided into two categories, according to Imam Santoso, director of dams at the public works ministry. Those whose parents had received compensation in the 1980s got 29 million rupiah. Others received up to 122 million. They weren’t offered alternative land. He said there is still time to ensure that residents receive compensation.

President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, signed a decree in January to implement compensation, determined to push ahead with infrastructure programs to bolster the country’s development. In the areas outside the planned reservoir, rice farmers like Koma are hoping it will bring an end to reliance on seasonal rains. Koma owns a small plot in the village of Majelengka, 50km from the dam, and says that a water shortage means he can now only grow one crop a year, or sometimes two.

This year, with the advent of a strong El Nino, things are worse than normal.

“The river is all dry," he said, pointing to cracks in the soil big enough to put your hand into. “It seems to rain less and less each year."

In Cipaku, a rice farming community that will be submerged, farmers harvested three crops a year.

At the village’s Islamic school, boys and girls sat next to each other reciting versus from the Koran on 31 August, as the reservoir started to fill.

“Where are these children going to go?" said their teacher Imron Nuroni. “Cipaku is going to be scattered. We are almost guaranteed to be impoverished." Bloomberg