Pakistani hunger strikers seek reparations for damaging project

5 April 2004

In March members of Save Coast Action Committee observed a hunger strike in front of the World Bank offices in Islamabad in protest against problems caused by projects the Bank had funded. The strikers, from Badin on the Pakistan coast pointed out that the projects have caused serious damage to their livelihoods and the coastal ecology. Community members presented a detailed letter to the World Bank country director registering their “concerns about serious human rights violations in the coastal areas of Badin” and calling for “full reparation of destruction caused by the national drainage project”. They pointed out that the project “is badly out of compliance with World Bank policy requirements” and called for the loan to be suspended.

The Left Bank outfall drainage project and its successor, the national drainage program, have been backed by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, British government and other donors. The aim has been to ensure that saline water drains effectively from farmland into the sea. Protesters complain, however that “from the very first day we have been raising objections regarding the project’s feasibility and sustainability. We rightly pointed out that it was against the natural disposal system and would destroy the entire coastal environment. Implementing agencies, financiers and consultants never listened to us”. The “huge army of international consultants did not work with professional honesty”, their limited mitigation measures “proved useless and about 800 million rupees ($14 million) were wasted”. Among the consultants was UK-based Mott MacDonald. The project, on the Arabian sea coast in Sindh province, cost four times the initial estimate.

A government committee and World Bank mission in the last two years have confirmed many of the villagers’ complaints. Among the findings of the Bank’s 2002 mission were that a weir and embankments which formed part of the project were almost completely destroyed in the 1999 cyclone. This has changed the salinity balance of the Dhands, wetlands on which thousands of impoverished coastal inhabitants depend for fishing. The mission recognised important long-term risks resulting from the substantial and irreversible damage to the ecosystem caused by seawater incursion.

Because water has been redirected away from some areas, there has been a decline of vegetation, loss of forest species and decreased grazing areas. This has forced some people to migrate. Thousands of acres of fertile land have been flooded by sea, pushing hundreds of families to live in extreme poverty. In the 2003 monsoon 30 people drowned and 20,000 acres of land normally used to grow sugarcane, chillies and rice were rendered unusable. Yet no donor or government officials even visited communities to assess the losses or plan measures to prevent a repeat this year.

The hunger strikers, who were joined by representatives of Sungi, Action Aid Pakistan, Sustainable Development Policy Institute and fisherfolk groups, say the World Bank and other donors have been “very irresponsible”, shifting the blame to Pakistani officials without recognising their own key roles in funding and legitimising this project. They argue that the Bank has a duty to ensure that no more people are harmed and to pay compensation. The Bank has not yet given its reaction but Ghulam Mustafa Talpur of ActionAid Pakistan said “we don’t expect any big progress from the Bank; they’ll probably just delay. We have plans for continued mobilisation to keep up the pressure”.