The failure of local governments and the China Three Gorges Corporation, the powerful dam developer, to deal adequately with mounting public grievances over their resettlement is not a new problem.
In one of the biggest scandals, in late 2005, more than 2,000 people living near the Xiluodu dam site in Yongshan, in Yunnan province, were evicted and escorted by thousands of soldiers and armed police to a town in Puer, on the border with Myanmar, more than 1,300 kilometres away. Most of them returned within a year after fleeing the harsh living conditions in their new home, prompting apologies from provincial officials.
Grass-roots officials and environmentalists have also questioned why construction work on mega-dams, including the Jinsha River dams, has always been allowed to go ahead months or even years before the launch of resettlement schemes.
National Audit Office reports released in 2009 and 2010 say preliminary construction work on the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams began more than 2 1/2 years before Beijing gave the projects final approval.
The audit watchdog also attributed the slow progress in resettlement schemes for both dams to policy delays and massive budgetary and quality control flaws, including the mismanagement of more than 1.4 billion yuan (HK$1.7 billion) earmarked for resettlement for the Xiluodu project.
'With nonsensical norms of giving dam construction a head start before planning evictions, the government and the people have in effect been kidnapped by power companies that have vested interests in building dams,' said Yang Yong, a Sichuan-based geologist who conducts independent surveys of major rivers in China's southwest.
Local officials admit they have no magic recipe for addressing spiralling problems that have yet to be tackled, and complain they are caught in the middle between the powerful China Three Gorges Corporation and thousands of residents.
'China Three Gorges is keen to push for early power generation but remains arbitrary, even stubborn, when it comes to raising compensation standards,' said Wen Nanxing, propaganda chief in Yunnan's Suijiang county. 'We local officials have no leverage with the developer.' Nearly 60,000 Suijiang county residents are expected to be forced from their homes by the Xiangjiaba dam and four towns, including the county seat, will need to be rebuilt.
A 2006 estimate by China Three Gorges put spending on the dam's resettlement scheme at 15.2 billion yuan, about 35 per cent of the total investment of 43.4 billion yuan.
Cadres also typically blame local residents for delays, accusing them of being greedy and making unreasonable demands in their efforts to extract better compensation deals.
As a result, tensions between villagers and local authorities have been high in areas affected by dam projects in recent years, with protests and even incidents of violent unrest.
Early this month in Yunnan's Qiaojia county, home to tens of thousands who face eviction to make way for the Xiluodu dam and the Baihetan dam upstream, a suicide bomber blew up a government office, killing three others and injuring 16. In March last year, an estimated 7,000 people in Suijiang county blocked main roads and the dam construction site for five days, demanding a review of compensation standards, saying they were too low.
Violence flared when villagers accused local officials of being insincere in finding a solution to their grievances, and hundreds of armed police and soldiers were sent to put down the protesters. Dozens of cadres and police officers were injured and an unspecified number of demonstrators arrested.
Unrest over resettlement has also broken out in Sichuan province over the past two years - in Pingshan county, where some 60,000 people were affected, and in Shuifu county, where the Xiangjiaba dam is located.
About this number of residents were relocated during construction of the Three Gorges dam between 1994 and 2008