World Bank Water Project Imperils Pakistan Fisherfolk

Mallah fisherman desperate for a good catch at Zero Point, a popular Badin district fishing spot. Photo: David Lepeska

By David Lepeska

HAJI HAJAM, Pakistan: John Wall has warned about poverty in Pakistan for years. "Poverty is an ethical concept, not a statistical one," the World Bank country director for Pakistan wrote in a 2006 editorial. "This clustering of Pakistan's population just above and just below the poverty line implies that families are quite vulnerable to falling into poverty with the slightest run of bad luck."

Wall cited drought and illness as examples of that luck, but the fisherfolk of southern Pakistan's Badin district ran into a more destructive and unnatural type of misfortune: a faulty World Bank project.

A vast alluvial plain unmarked by hills or rivers, Badin is one of Sindh province's poorer districts by most socio-economic measures - health care, education, infant mortality, income. Within Badin, no area is worse off than the coastal dhands, or shallow estuary lakes. The average family size is six, and many of them live on less than 200 rupees (about US$3) per day. Electricity coverage is minimal. Unemployment is rampant, eight out of 10 locals are illiterate and the nearest clinic is 40 kilometers away. Yet for centuries thousands of Mallah, or fisherman, families have called this soggy, desolate land home.

Those days may be numbered.

In 1984 the World Bank initiated the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) program to "reverse the deterioration of the land resource base caused by waterlogging and salinity." The key component was the construction of a 300 km outfall drain, or tidal link, from eastern Sindh into the Arabian Sea. Seen as the first stage of major regional drainage overhaul, the project received more than $1 billion from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Saudi Fund for Development and others.

By 1997, when the World Bank closed the project and replaced it with the National Drainage Program (NDP), agricultural production had perked up along the north end of the drain. Some farmers had returned after seeking work in urban areas because of waterlogged, saline farmland.

But in the summer of 1999, heavy rains burst through the drain and destroyed thousands of acres of farmland. In 2003, widespread flooding wrought even more havoc, killing at least 50 villagers, inundating 75 villages and displacing about 50,000 locals. Damage to 1.5 million acres of farmland in Thatta and Badin districts - near the southern end of the drain - resulted in dislocation and extensive economic losses. Because of high salinity in the ground water, drinking water became scarce across the region.

In 2005, the World Bank began to investigate the program failures at the request of local leaders. Its inspection panel concluded in a July 2006 report that the bank violated six safeguard policies and in the process caused heavy damage in the coastal areas.

"Throughout design, construction and operation of LBOD and NDP," the investigators wrote, "social and environmental aspects were largely overlooked or downplayed. In particular, the Panel found that the Project paid inadequate attention to the people and environment downstream of the irrigation and drainage system in southern Sindh."

Perhaps most damning was the finding that "significant technical mistakes were made during the design of the Tidal Link." To avoid crossing into Indian territory, the designers routed the tidal link in a southwesterly direction, towards the Indus Delta and the Arabian Sea. In doing so they went against the natural slope of the land - south-southeast to the Rann of Kutch - and routed the drain across the dhands and into the powerful monsoon winds. Devised by Mott MacDonald, a British engineering consultancy contracted by the World Bank, and implemented by the government of Pakistan, this directional shift is at the root of the trouble caused by the LBOD.

The dhands have lost some 40 percent of their water in the past decade, according to Action Aid Pakistan. Salinity has increased because of the constant sea linkage. And with 54 breaches in the tidal link, floods are a constant worry.

"If you spend $1 billion it should result in a substantive change in people's lives for the better," said Badin native Mustafa Talpur of Water Aid Pakistan. "It's not just the people, the whole environment and ecology is worse."

World Bank management responded to the panel's findings with a three-pronged action plan: a livelihoods component called the Sindh Coastal Areas Development Program; an ecological component to improve and maintain the integrity and bio-diversity of the dhands; and an irrigation component, the Sindh Water Sector Improvement Project.

"At the time the project was designed, the emphasis was on getting the biggest benefit for farmers by reducing salinity and water logging to expand irrigated areas," Wall said at the 2006 release of the action plan. "The very poorest people outside the irrigation and drainage system were neglected."

Nearly two years later, locals said they were still being neglected.

"We asked them to address the root cause of the disaster and change the direction of the drain - they refused," said Talpur. "We asked them to consult with locals - they did not. We asked that the livelihoods program target all the affected villages - it does not."

Talpur spoke about the district's troubles at last year's World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., but said he came away with little more than empty promises.

On an April afternoon at Zero Point, a popular dhands fishing spot, dozens of haggard and rail-thin Mallah complained about a steady decline of fish. In the nearby village of Haji Hajam, one fisherman cited a 60 percent drop in his catch.

"My family fishing here for five generations," said Moula Bux Mallah, 46, speaking in Sindhi.

He was sitting on a charpoy, or raised cot, surrounded by a couple dozen village children - eight of whom were his own.

"Now it is hard to catch enough to feed my family, and I have thought about leaving," he said.

Nurri Lagoon, which used to be 20,000 acres of shallow water, full of fish and home to a bird sanctuary, has shrunk to a quarter of its former size. Fishing has dropped between 70 percent and 80 percent. In Ahmed Rajo, a village along the northern edge of the dhands, a farmer named Assim said with output for rice down 40 percent, he switched some of his fields to sunflowers.

Badin native Abdul Salam Memon, secretary of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, said farmers have shifted thousands of acres of rice and sugarcane fields to sunflowers because they require less water.

"It makes about the same profit," Memon said. "But the problem is that there is less food to eat."

The World Bank's latest progress report reveals high salinity, increasingly irrevocable ecological damage, and dhands threatened by storm surges and high tides.

"The drainage system is grossly inadequate and poorly maintained," said the report, released in early 2008. "The system does not have the capacity to carry even a nominal increase in precipitation."

This in a land where rainfall is highly unpredictable and monsoon rains dominate from July to September.

The plight of coastal area villagers has worsened.

"The abject and pervasive poverty and limited livelihood opportunities of the people living and depending on the Badin dhands needs to be addressed," the researchers wrote.

Thus far, the bank's action plan has focused on building community action groups, helping develop local livelihoods and extending credit to poor villagers. According to the World Bank report, "The problem is that the dhand area communities are too weak to benefit from such a program; the program strategy needs to be re-thought to reach these poorest of the poor."

As the World Bank prepares to spend an additional $9 billion on new water projects in Pakistan, perhaps it should first repair the damage done in Badin. Talpur called it a "moral disaster." John Wall might call it an ethical one.

For the fisherfolk of the dhands it's just reality.

-- posted on devex.com on 01 July 2008

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