Feb 14, 2007

Sindh: Development Project Criticized

The flaws of a decades old development project aimed at curbing environmental degradation are now coming under fire in the international community.

Below is an excerpt from an article published by Newsline:

What are the consequences of a project that is conceived, planned and executed without bringing the actual stakeholders into the loop?

The Left Bank Outfall Drain Project (LBODP) is a classic example of how not to proceed on a project. Originally conceived to address the issue of salinity in Sindh, the LBODP has ended up creating more problems rather than solving them. Experts are now looking at ways to address the adverse environmental, agricultural and human consequences of the project.

Population-wise, Sindh is the second largest province, home to 23% of the total population of Pakistan. The province covers an area of 87,358 square miles, which constitutes 7.7% of the total area of the country.

Agriculture is its main source of income. (…)

Sindh has to contend with serious problems of water-logging and salinity due to its flat topography and inadequate drainage, traditional crop watering techniques involving flooding and late implementation of the drainage programme. In 1999, the waterlogged area comprised 5.4 million acres out of a total CCA of 12.8 million acres. In shallow or saline groundwater areas, salinity remains very high, approximately 3,900 to 4,000 parts per million (ppm). In the fresh groundwater extra space area, salinity is estimated to be just over 900 ppm.

The LBODP commenced in 1984. The first stage of the project was aimed at benefiting 350,000 acres of the CCA in Nawabshah, Sanghar and Mirpurkhas. Initially, the project was estimated to cost Rs.8.5 million (US$140 million). However, it ended up costing Rs.31 billion over US$500 million – approximately three-and-a-half times the original estimate. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) were the major donors of the project, besides other smaller donors.


Experts like Naseer Memon, a development professional and civil engineer who has written extensively on drainage and irrigation, maintain that the most viable outfall option through Shakoor Dhand, was not even considered. Instead, it was decided to transport the effluent to the sea through a natural lake complex of very high ecological significance. Two of the four surrounding lakes, Nureri and Jubbo, were recognised as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention of 1971. According to Memon, it was a source of livelihood for nearly 15,000 fishermen living across more than 40 villages. An embankment that was 4.5 feet high and 18 feet wide was provided to maintain the requisite water level in the lakes.

The disaster and consequent nightmare began when the Cholri Weir, just 10 miles from the sea in Badin District, collapsed on the night of June 24, 1988. Authorities made some cosmetic repairs to the weir, but within four months the breach became 450 feet wide on the southern side, unleashing an unprecedented environmental havoc on the fragile lake system. There was a free flow of saline water from the drain into the fresh water lakes. This pristine conservation area was turned into a pond for saline effluent, a sort of saline sink. With the increased salinity levels, flora and fauna slowly disappeared. With a decline in fish species, locals lost a source of food and income, and worse still, ground water in surrounding areas became undrinkable. At one stage, the salinity of Pateji Dhand was found to be as high as 68,000 ppm – up from the previously measured figure of 15,000 ppm (ideally, Pateji Dhand should be between 900 ppm and 3,000 ppm).

Then mother nature moved in, not only demonstrating the weakness in the engineering but also confirming the unsoundness of the entire outfall strategy. A disastrous cyclone lashed the area on May 21, 1999. It caused 54 breaches in the embankment of the tidal link, rendering it completely irreparable. The breached structure caused widespread damage on nearby settlements of fishermen communities. According to official statistics, 75 people lost their lives in Badin alone. Additionally, sea water found a regular inlet into the lake system. Local drains started to backflow destroying land and the aquifer in Badin. Crops were damaged, settlements flooded and houses demolished.

The cause of all this lay not with environmental uncontrollables but with issues directly related to the Left Bank Outfall Drain Project. In 1983, when the project was at its preparatory stage, soil samples analysed during the time of construction showed stiff, cohesive clay with 85% silt content. At the design stage, soil tests carried out by Foundation Engineering Limited showed a much smaller content of silt and clay. Despite being aware that the soil in the channel bed was not sufficiently cohesive, no protection was provided at the bed of Cholri Weir, consequently exposing it to active erosion in the event of tidal fluctuation.

Of course the lack of comprehensive public consultations was another huge problem. The outfall system in the project was designed without proper consultation with the local communities, including the fishermen. The tidal link ended up being constructed against the wind direction, which reinforced the impact of the waves. Experts like Memon contend that exhaustive environmental and socio-economic studies were not conducted. So while an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the LBODP was carried out in 1989, it was not very comprehensive and was limited only to the biological aspects; it ignored the socio-economic and cultural implications of the project, such as the impact on local incomes and livelihood resources like fish, and crop land, as well as impact in traditional living style and places of cultural signifiance. [significance]

The World Bank has now been asked to develop mechanisms to address the problems that have occured [occurred] as a consequence of the project. Earlier a group of affected locals, lead by non-governmental organisation Action Aid Pakistan, approached the inspection panel set up by the World Bank on September 10, 2004, and submitted a formal complaint on the continuing adverse effects of the project on the people.

The panel submitted its own report on July 6, 2006. The report noted that “serious flaws were detected at key stages of the project, i.e. planning, designing, execution, supervision and monitoring.” The panel also pointed out that the selected alignment for the tidal link was technically and environmentally hazardous, as there were no provisions for the closure of the tidal link in the event of an emergency. In addition, there were no facilities to issue advance warnings to the population and mitigate the impact of flooding. As a result of the shortcomings in the environmental assessment, decision-making on environmentally critical elements of the project was less systematic, less informed and considerably ad hoc.

However, it must be pointed out that the inspection panel’s report, too, has certain shortcomings. For instance, the panel did not assess how the project had affected wetlands, or identify measures to remedy the situation.

In response to the inspection panel’s findings, the World Bank in November 2006 chalked out a plan of action. According to the plan, the World Bank wants to “compensate” for the losses suffered by local communities through two projects, the Coastal Area Development Programme (CADP) and the Water Sector Improvement Project (WSIP). Both these projects are being financed via World Bank loans of US$90 million and US$140 million respectively. Therefore, the compensation actually amounts to saddling the country with more debt, which means that Pakistani citizens will end up picking up the tabs for yet another ill-conceived project.

The LBODP is an example of poor planning and bad execution within a development project. The failure of the LBODP has proved that without proper participation of local communities and civil society, such projects will end up as environmental and socio-economic disasters. The World Bank, other donors and WAPDA should all take collective responsibility for this failure; they should pay for the complete rehabilitation of the damaged ecosystem and compensate local communities. It is sad that despite the inspection panel’s report, the World Bank is imposing new loans on the country in the name of an action plan to address the mess created by the LBODP – a project it originally sponsored and approved. 

Is this development?