Vol. 5 Num 61 Tue. July 27, 2004  

Projects of Mass Destruction

Facing another flood, another experience of human disaster, where should we look? People in general are taught to consider floods as a curse of fate. The ruling class is happy to describe flooding as a natural disaster. But, in reality, flooding is a close associate of the "development" festival drama. In other words, the flooding is closely linked to grabbing of waterways and filling them with shopping plazas and multistoried housing, and to big irrigation and flood control projects.

This is an old story, filled with lies, hypocrisy, cheating, intellectual fraud, and all-out plunder.

After the floods of 1954, Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) was established in 1959, and several flood control and irrigation projects were conceived. This was the beginning of a new era of massive intervention-injection-construction on the waterways of Bangladesh. Since then we have had plenty of projects for erecting embankments and other structures. Not coincidentally, perhaps, we have since then experienced increased intensity of flooding.

The time gaps between massive floods have been narrowing with the increase of flood prevention projects: 1954 to 1974: 20 years, 1974 to 1987 and 1988: 13-14 years, 1988 to 1998: 10 years, and 1998 to 2004: 6 years. It is a linear progression!

In 1964, a 20-year master plan for water resources development was initiated, and after

independence, the government endorsed this approach quite uncritically and took steps to carry the programme further. More than 8,200 kms of embankments were constructed under these projects. In addition, more than 4,700 kms of irrigation canals, 3,400 kms of drainage channels, more than 9,000 hydraulic structures (such as sluice gates and regulators), 4,300 bridges and culverts, 96 pump houses and two barrages were built.

In 1972, the World Bank seemed critical about some of the projects that had been started in the 60s. It termed many of the projects as "poorly conceived" and "ill-suited" to the particular needs of the country. It categorically named one, the Ganges-Kobadak irrigation and flood control project as "an example of a poorly selected and prepared project."

But by then $132 million had been spent on it. According to the Bank, "after 16 years of construction, redesign, and reconstruction, the project failed to perform at even 50 percent of the original design standard." Nevertheless, the same institution kept itself busy continuing similar old big projects and formulating similar new ones.

Repeatedly, the Bank and other "development" missions have noted the great potential for using ground water for domestic and agricultural needs and therefore advocated for its more intensive use. Many water projects, such as Brahmaputra right bank embankment project, Pabna project, Dakatia and Halda project, Barisal project, Ganges-Kobadak Kushtia project, Chenchuri and the Barnal, Salinpur-Bashukhali projects in the Khulna area, Surma-Baulai Haor and the Knowai River projects in Northeast region, River training, Chandpur riverbed stabilization project, Chilmari project, and Kurigram project came into being.

To name a few, Chalan Beel, one of the richest wetland areas of Bangladesh, is now almost ruined by water projects. Due to construction of ill-conceived embankments and regulators, drainage has been impeded and water-logging has become a serious problem in Atrai-Hurasagar drainage basin. In Beel Dakatia, a huge area has been waterlogged for about twenty years as a result of big water projects.

After nearly thirty years of "successful" and intensive tapping of groundwater, nearly 35 million people in Bangladesh are now facing deadly threat from arsenic poisoning. Experts opine that arsenic in the groundwater has links with indiscriminate use of groundwater. Now, again, the Bank has taken the lead in conducting million dollar projects related to "managing" the arsenic problem.

The ADB also played a significant role in formulating and supporting similar programmes. While numerous documents describe the processes leading to the initiation of flood control, drainage, and irrigation (FCDI) projects, few exist that critique a project's completion or post-project evaluation. The Bank and the ADB were the largest actors in these FCDI projects. The share of these two institutions of the projects in the sector has been more than 70 percent.

Alan C. Lindquist, in a UNDP sponsored agriculture sector review, reported that while the ADB prepared "project completion reports upon completion of its projects" there was a "lack of completion of ADB projects in Bangladesh, even though some were begun ten years ago." In fact, he continued, "ADB-Dhaka was not able to show me a single project completion report for one of their water projects." Lindquist, citing another review of ADB water projects in Bangladesh, stated "only 3 out of the ADB projects attempted since 1973 have been completed and, on average, those took 72 percent longer to complete than projected."

Consultants, local and imported, have been the major beneficiaries of these projects. Since these were all "aided" projects, appointment of "donor" preferred foreign consultants has always been compulsory. Irrespective of qualification, consultant fees have been a significant share of the project costs. Another study showed that, "foreign consultants cost 6.8 to 25 times as much as local Bangladesh consultants, and 57 to 73 times as much as their BWDB counterparts." Often "aided" water sector projects have been considered by both local and foreign consultants/engineers/bureaucrats/suppliers as something highly desirable irrespective of relevance or results.

Hugh Brammer, associated with water sector projects in Bangladesh for a long time, wrote in 2002, that he witnessed an incident "where a chief engineer simply crossed out the word 'not' from the recommendation that certain soils were 'not suitable for irrigation' in the draft report on a detailed soil survey of a proposed irrigation project area. The authority was successful in obtaining funds from the donor to implement the project -- which was a disaster." He also observed that, "Bangladeshi consultants hired to carry out such surveys (and also project appraisals) were aware that 'happiness reports' were more likely to ensure their future business than strictly objective reports on their findings."

All these highly expensive huge structural measures could not save Bangladesh from disastrous floods in 1987 and again in 1988. Nevertheless, the water resources programmes were intensified and pursued with more rigour. The Bank continued to pursue similar projects. It went for a comprehensive programme to "control flood" and "water management."

After easy negotiations between local-global partners, the Bank gave birth to another big project of mass destruction (PMD): the Flood Action Plan which "would be the first step in the implementation of a comprehensive long-term programme for flood control and drainage in Bangladesh." According to the Bank, "embankments must be seen as elements of a comprehensive water control system planned and designed to modify the water regime in the interests of more profitable land use in an environmentally sound manner."

It is easy to see that the Bank always advocates structural solutions to the flood problems that involve huge costs. Expensive projects have always been preferred, probably because expensive projects ensure a nice windfall to the parties involved. In 1990, the Bank expressed its satisfaction with the impressive record of construction of the Bangladesh Water Development Board and its predecessor agency, with some 5,000 water control structures and over 6,000 km of embankment.

Subsequently, however, the Flood Action Plan was virtually abandoned in the face of criticism from home and abroad. But it was later replaced by the WARPO, which was basically the same programme under a new name. In 1998, another massive flood brought huge material loss and severe human sufferings. Again similar and bigger projects! And eventually we have now reached to 2004 flood.

A number of studies have examined the environmental impact of the water management projects. The beneficial effects were found to be: increased flood-free secured land for agriculture, livestock, settlement, industry, and infrastructure; all-year accessibility; higher rice yields in both wet and dry season; expansion of cropping areas and the extension of the cropping period due to improved drainage; opportunity for fish culture in ponds; and reduced hazards from extreme floods and tidal surges.

These beneficial effects, however, are often much lower in magnitude than the estimated benefits shown to justify the projects. Moreover, the benefit in project area in short term is not seen keeping long term effect in the area as well as in the area outside the project under consideration. Therefore, the benefits cost more per capita than shown in project proposals.

There are comparatively fewer studies to understand the costs and negative impact. Some studies found detrimental effects of those projects as follows: increased drainage problems behind embankments; reduced residual moisture in the dry season, especially on higher ground, hence reducing cropping options; deterioration of soil physical properties in water-logged areas; potentially greater loss of crops under conditions of extreme flooding and embankments failure; loss of formerly flooded habitats for major capture of fishery species; changes in hydrological regimes of remaining habitats; increased agrochemical runoff and contamination of surface waters; restriction of water-borne transportation by physical structures and siltation; increased depth of flooding, higher flood velocities and erosion of char and other unprotected active flood plains; loss of livestock grazing areas; increase in the incidence of diseases, such as cholera and malaria, as a result of reduced flushing of polluted water sources. There is no evidence of the global institutions who sponsored these projects accepting responsibility for all these detrimental effects. Not surprising.

Despite all that has been done to make a country of free-flowing abundant water into one that is water-logged, it seems that the water sector has become an increasingly more lucrative field for profit making investment of corporate bodies and beneficiaries. To them, projects are not meant to solve the problems which lead to disaster, but are a permanent system of monitoring and studying the phenomenon that give connected parties a permanent way of making wealth. Floods, just like poverty, give them immense opportunity to ensure fat lives at home and abroad.

The floods today in 2004, therefore, are both a product of the flood control projects and also a good reason to prepare more projects in similar line. With the money taken from people's pocket, the flow of water is blocked, rivers are destroyed, the overflow of water become disastrous, water-logging become permanent, and the results are all around us.

Anu Muhammad is a Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University.