Prioritising people

Prioritising people MUCH water has flown under the bridge ever since the Flood Action Plan (FAP) - jointly developed by the World Bank (WB) and the Bangladesh government - was launched in 1988 in Bangladesh. The FAP can be fruitfully implemented only if its coordinators succeed in involving the people: this verdict was reached at the two -day meeting of the donor agencies organised in Dhaka from December 3-4, 1995. The FAP was conceived in 1985 primarily to protect Bangladesh from the devastating annual onslaughts of floods. But it has been dogged by controversies since its inception, with a steadily swelling rank of detractors accusing it of "ignoring the knowledge and active participation of the local people". And in the last one year, the issue has snowballed.

On November 25, the town of Tangail in Bangladesh reverberated with slogans and protest calls raised by a 3,000-odd-strong crowd brandishing banners and placards. They hailed from Shibpur, Bhagil, Charabari and myriad other villages surrounding Tangail, vehemently protesting against the FAP. They called themselves the "victims" of the FAP-20 Compartmentalisation Pilot Project which has caused severe waterlogging and spelt doom for Bangladesh's farmers.

The farmers, backed by front-running environmental groups and prominent peasants' associations, insist that Bangladesh does not need "flood control" programmes, but requires a well- integrated and farsighted water management policy. And FAP actually fails to meet these requirements. The agitators claim that the plan ignores local traditional knowledge and instead, relies on totally unsuitable "hi-tech" solutions like building embankments and barrages, which could cause irreparable damage to the standing crops, agricultural lands and the nation's environment on the whole.

The Tangail rally, however, was particularly significant because it was organised on the eve of the fourth and the final FAP conference in Dhaka, on November 30 and December 2. Planned by the Flood Plan Coordination Organisation (FPCO) that includes representatives of both the WB and the government, the conference provided a platform for holding discussions on the "next step" that the government may propose after the FAP. The Khaleda Zia administration had, in early September, officially adopted the final report of the FAP, which has now been renamed as Bangladesh Water and Flood Management Strategy.

The Bank- coordinated FAP was launched by 15 donor countries and agencies, after Bangladesh experienced what has been described as "one of the worst floods in living memory" in 1988, when 53 out of the country's 64 districts were deluged by floods. FAP supporters insisted that the scheme would help tame the country's rivers, saving lives and dramatically boosting food production.

The FAP'S first draft emerged in October 1994, after a nearly five-year phase of studies costing us $50 million - only to be hit by a barrage of strident criticism by the Coalition of Environmental NGOS (CEN)-led environmental lobby which comprised of front-running organisations like the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS). The report made a list of 65 priority projects including six studies to be implemented over a period of 10 years at a cost of US $2.5 billion. And the entire money, informed the donors, would be spent on building embankments along the two sides of the major rivers of the nation in order to tame them.

What the anti-FAP campaigners found particularly galling was that the common people, whose lives are intricately linked with these rivers, were completely ignored. The farmers, fisher-people, and the landless poor, who have the best first-hand knowledge about floods and their repurcussions, were not consulted by the WB at any stage of the FAP. To bring forth the views and opinions of these people, who felt that floods in normal years actually enhanced soil fertility, the BCAS, in collaboration with Panos - an international information service - launched a book titled Rivers of Life, in June 1994.

FAP-baiters had, by now, succeeded in garnering international support. A Dutch FAP platform was set up by NOVIB, the Dutch NGO, and a few other groups. Together, they are strongly lobbying the Dutch government - one of the largest stakeholders in the FAP-20 project in Tangail.

But shaken by the swelling ranks of anti-FAP activists, the WB proposed intensive surveys in Bangladesh. A five- member independent mission fielded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reviewed the report, and suggested that "there should be more debates" on the FAP and stated that prominent people's representatives who are up in arms against the WB'S Moves, should be invited to present their opinions before the government.

Thus, the final draft of the FAP, now referred to as the Strategy Paper, came into being in March 1995. Even the staunchest critics of FPCO grudgingly admitted that it was a distinct improvement over the last one. It was obvious that the overwhelmingly negative response of the people's groups had influenced the FAP-strategists to a considerable extent.

The paper strongly emphasised the need to prepare an integrated water management plan for Bangladesh. It also proposed the establishment of environmental and research centres in FAP regions for conducting intensive research on biodiversity conservation and surface and ground water management. It came up with some concrete schemes to develop people's participation through "regular interface with beneficiaries and the other interested public in the thanas or sub-districts". "It is a victory of the advocacy campaigns of the NGO's," raved Saleemul Huq, executive director of the BCAS.

But Huq's colleagues at the CEN were still not convinced. The CEN held a meeting on October 21, 1995, and issued a joint statement on the FAP report. While acknowledging that the Strategy Paper is far more progressive than the one that was callously imposed upon the farmers and fisherfolk of Bangladesh last October, the NGOs insisted that an independent evaluation of the FAP should be conducted immediately. Furthermore, all FAP operations should be suspended till such evaluation is complete and conclusive. And most importantly, the joint statement stressed that peoples participation should be ensured at all levels of planning and implementation of the water resources management scheme.

In a determined bid to drive home their message, the CEN workers organised the People's Conference on November 27, in Dhaka, two days before the FAP meeting was scheduled to take place. About 350 people from different FAP sectors like Tangail, Gaibandha, and other villages assembled at the venue. They were joined by representatives of the donor agencies like the World Bank and the UNDP. The FPCO consultants, water sector specialists and academicians were also present in the conference in full strength. "It was an extremely vibrant meeting," raved Dwijen Mallik of the BCAS, who has been closely following the issue. The concerned NGOs vociferously criticised the FAP, saying it would remain a "death trap" unless the steps suggested by them were adopted. They also insisted that they be allowed to present two papers on Environmental and People's Participation in the technical sessions of the FAP conferences.

The NGO Conference, that was primarily designed to influence the -donors, was a resounding success. Not only did the Fpco accept the suggestion of presenting the two papers, the FAP confer- ence itself went overwhelmingly in favour of the people. From the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to the representatives of donor agencies, all the delegates literally vied with each other to take a pro-people stand. "The UNDP Will hold back funds for the pilot projects unless priority is given to people's views and participation," declared Eimi Watanabe, resident representative of the UNDP in Bangladesh.

Begurn Khaleda Zia's statement also followed the NGO line. She announced that her administration would evolve an integrated water resource mangement strategy not just to concentrate on flood control, but to focus on the "optimum use of water resources for sustainable development and economic growth". Enlisting the support of the country's people would be one of the primary tasks of her government, she stressed.

The views expressed by Pierre Landell Mill, World Bank mission chief, echoed the same feelings. "A national water resource management plan will achieve results in Bangladesh only if it takes into account vital issues like environmental concerns and povery alleviation schemes," he said. Presently, the anti-FAP camp seems to have won the first round of the battle. But experts like Dwijen Mallik point out that it is too early to rejoice, for, victory will come only when "what has been put down on paper is put to practice as well".

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