World Bank to probe troubled Indus project

Washington, October 26:

The World Bank will confront problems its inspectors say have bedeviled efforts to upgrade the world’s largest irrigation system along Pakistan’s Indus River, according to documents leaked to IPS.

Executive directors of the Washington-based multilateral development lender are to meet October 31 to weigh action based on an internal investigation faulting the Bank’s performance and a management proposal to alleviate troubles brought to light by Pakistani communities and pressure groups.

At issue is a Bank loan, approved in 1997, that provides $285 million towards a 25-year, $785 million Pakistani bid to improve irrigation on 35.7 million acres of agricultural land straddling the breadbasket provinces of Sindh and Punjab. The region generates two-thirds of the country’s jobs and 80 per cent of its export earnings.

Nearly a decade later, floodplains and coastal tracts stand waterlogged or encrusted with salt.

Local farmers have seen their livelihoods rot with the earth. Increased flooding has ensued

and in 2003 claimed more than 300 lives, media reports said at the time.

People harmed by the project in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, in a written complaint filed in 2004, blamed their tribulations on the Bank.

They accused it of breaking its own policies aimed at protecting the environment, ensuring sound project supervision, and consulting local people at every step of a project.

Also flouted were rules on the resettlement of local people and communities to make way for Bank-financed projects, complainants charged. The Bank’s quasi-independent inspection panel investigated those complaints and found, in a report dated July 6, 2006, that locals’ grievances had merit.

The watchdog also said, however, that Bank officials had taken steps to comply with policy only to be undone by problems at the Pakistani end.

These included a lack of consensus among government, community and other stakeholders.

Further, the Bank had begun to take steps to remedy some failures and was preparing a loan to shore up Sindh’s coastal areas.

Bank managers, in a response dated October 10 and to be discussed by the lender’s executive board October 31, said they had spent 18 million dollars on improving living conditions in the affected areas in the past two years.

They proposed further measures through 2016 to combat flooding and to improve irrigation and drainage in affected areas.

“In Management’s view the Bank was diligent in the application of its policies and procedures during implementation of NDP,” or national drainage project, they said.

Critics remained unconvinced.

ActionAid Pakistan, an affiliate of the international charity, and the US-based environmental pressure group International Rivers Network pointed to sections in the Bank documents suggesting that at least some of the mitigation measures proposed were part of ongoing plans for increased lending to Pakistan’s water sector and were neither designed in response to the Pakistanis’ complaint nor aimed specifically at addressing their troubles.

“The World Bank continues to turn a blind eye to the impacts of its projects on the ground,” the groups said in a joint statement Wednesday.

They urged the Bank to “pay reparations to address the grievances of the affected people, and stop financing large dam and canal projects in Pakistan.” Some 1,000-plus people harmed by the project also asked, in an October 5 list of demands, that the Bank’s loan be converted into a grant, that alternative drainage options be found, and that a comprehensive plan be enforced to protect and restore livelihoods, land, and fish and animal stocks.