Revisiting the LBOD issue

October 05, 2011

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WITH the recent monsoon experience, the question of whether the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) is the primary cause of flooding in lower Sindh districts has resurfaced.

Originally, the drain was designed to channel excessive irrigation water during floods and the runoff of waterlogged lands in Shaheed Benazirabad (formally Nawabshah), Sanghar and Mirpurkhas districts into the Arabian Sea at Zero Point in Badin district. The project, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB), was additionally meant to carry industrial and municipal effluent from urban centres.

However, due to numerous gaps in the design, operational, technical and monitoring dimensions, the drain has in fact been causing heavy damage from time to time. The sufferers include human populations, biodiversity and crops, especially when the lower Sindh area is hit by cyclones and heavy rains.

The LBOD has been serving as a ready channel for seawater to flow upward and encroach upon Sindh’s ecologically important and fertile areas. This was observed in the wake of the 1999 cyclone, when encroaching seawater caused severe damage. The cyclone hit the 41-kilometre tidal link canal of the LBOD, which split open in 65 places and caused massive losses in Badin. The scale of the tragedy is underlined by the fact that 355 bodies of children and adults were pulled out of the mud.

Faulty design was traced as the major reason behind the tidal link’s weakness. Badin’s coastal community believes that had the LBOD not existed, cyclone-related losses could have been minimised by up to 80 per cent.

Similar havoc linked to the LBOD was wreaked in Badin during the floods of 2003. The drain swelled beyond its capacity which resulted in breaches and overflows.

After surveying the damage, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum reported: “More than 32 people were killed, 50,000 acres of standing crops were damaged, more than 100,000 people were displaced for three months, about 12,000 fishermen lost their single source of livelihood, and more than 10,000 acres of land [were] encroached [upon] by seawater during the rains and floods in 2003.”

In the recent floods, the existence of the drain has had a similar impact. Damage was inflicted on communities and arable lands in not just Badin but also Shaheed Benazirabad, Sanghar and Mirpurkhas. The first area, however, bore the brunt of the fury.

A report prepared jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) blames the LBOD for the destruction brought on Tando Mohammad Khan, Badin and Mirpurkhas districts. The gravity of the damage, and its geographical limits, has been wider this time.

The LBOD project should never have been pursued in the first place. Neither the design nor the implantation plan was feasible or participatory. Indeed, they lacked both wisdom and farsightedness. While the project proponents and implementers were focusing on the LBOD as a tool in drainage, they failed to consider it as a possible threat.

The project was riddled with violations of not just various national and international laws but also the ADB and WB safeguard policies on involuntarily resettlement. The issues of preservation of climate and the protection of lakes were not considered, and the public was kept unaware of the project’s potential impact. Breaches in the LBOD and its tidal link have resulted in the degradation of a large area of land by contaminating the groundwater with salt. This has resulted in depriving a large number of people of potable water. The United Nations General Assembly declared the right to water as a basic right in 2010; the forum has proclaimed the 2005-2015 period as the international decade for action for ‘Water for Life’.

The degradation of cultivable land and the resultant contraction of livelihood opportunities have deprived a large number of people of their right to food ensured in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Pakistan in 2008, recognises freedom from hunger as a fundamental right.

With regard to biodiversity, the extinction of fish species as a result of the LBOD could be held to violate the UN Convention on Biodiversity, signed and ratified by Pakistan in 1994.

Efficient functioning of the LBOD required social and political oversight. These were absent during the project’s design and implementation stages. Despite several initiatives by groups and individuals such as the ‘save the coast’ committee in Badin and an anti-LBOD movement, the project was pushed through. Had these initiatives been taken before or during the project’s implementation, work could have been halted.

Interested parties filed a complaint in the World Bank’s Inspection Panel on Sept 9, 2004. After investigation, the panel justified the allegation levelled by the anti-LBOD movement and submitted its finding to the WB’s board of directors in mid-2006. In response, the bank management provided an action plan to the board which was approved on Oct 31, 2006.

Unfortunately, the plan failed to correspond with the major recommendations of the anti-LBOD movement. Instead of taking genuine and result-oriented measures, the bank made foul use of the losses. It gave financial assistance in the form of grants to some NGOs through the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund. These funds were meant to implement various activities to compensate those affected by the LBOD. Subsequently, the anti-LBOD movement weakened and ultimately became dysfunctional.

In view of the damage wrought during the recent floods, it is time the movement mustered up its strength again. Before renewing the campaign, it should revisit its previous demands in relation to the present context. The priority list must be topped by the demand to decommission the LBOD. First, its low capacity can’t withstand pressure. Secondly, it has been weakened by poor maintenance. If it is not decommissioned, it will continue to bring disaster.

The writer works with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and was associated with the Manila-based NGO on ADB Forum.