Troubled Waters: World Bank Disasters Along Kenya's Tana River

by Korinna Horta

 BURA, KENYA - THE WORLD BANK'S fiftieth anniversary has been marked by a barrage of eco-friendly and community-friendly statements by Bank officials and publicity documents. But a journey along Kenya's Tana River paints a different picture of Bank-funded projects.

The Tana River is one of many Third World regions where Bank-funded projects have led to severe and long-term ecological and social damage. The Tana, Kenya's longest river, has its source in the forested highlands north of Nairobi. The river first heads north, where it is fed by many tributaries from Mount Kenya and the Nyambeni range, then turns east and traverses the low-lying regions of Kenya's eastern and coastal provinces on its way to the Indian Ocean.

During its 300-mile journey, the Tana bears witness to a Bank-funded energy project, an agricultural project and one of the new generation of so-called environmental projects. The project furthest upstream is the Kiambere hydro-electric dam. Some 240 miles downstream, the Tana passes the Bura Irrigation project, followed 50 miles further downstream by a project intended to protect biodiversity.

The upstream projects have an impact on the downstream project areas, although one would not be able to tell from World Bank documents. Since each project belongs to a different branch of the Bank - the Energy and Agriculture Divisions and the Global Environment Facility - there is little coordination between them. "This is a very large bureaucracy. Different people are brought in under different contexts. There was no systematic machinery in place," says Rafik Hirbi, a water resources expert at the Bank. "But this is changing now," he contends.

 The very goal of the downstream "environmental" project - protection of a forest ecosystem that shelters two rare primate species - is threatened by both upstream projects. Yet World Bank documents claim that it is indigenous villagers who are a threat to the monkeys and that the villagers need to be relocated. The villagers have so far lived peacefully with the monkeys, but this may change if they feel that the monkeys' protection comes at their expense. For the villagers, it is a question of life and death. And the history of the two Bank-funded upstream projects suggests they are right to fear for their survival.


The Kiambere dam

 A roadblock stops all vehicles as the main road through Kenya's lush green central highlands gives way to the newly paved road leading to the Kiambere dam. The guards demand to see official authorization from Kenya's Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda), Kenya's project executing agency, before letting anyone pass. Controls are tight and the guards are suspicious of cars that do not belong to the government. But salaries are low, and the guards are willing to accept some cash in lieu of an official document.

Construction began in 1985 on a dam designed to create 140 megawatts of electric power. But water in the reservoir appears to be dangerously low even during the peak of the rainy season. Bank officials claim that the project is fully operational, but information on how recent droughts have affected dam output is difficult to obtain, since Bank policy bars such critical information from being released to the public. Among the documents deemed confidential is a detailed internal Bank evaluation of the Kiambere dam completed in 1993.

 An immediately evident problem, however, is the fate of the people who once farmed the fertile valley and were forced to leave when the dam reservoir was filled. The World Bank requested that Tarda conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) as a precondition for Bank financing. Apparently, however, the Bank did not provide Tarda with a copy of its policy on involuntary resettlement established in 1980. Instead, Tarda was only given some general outdated terms of reference, written in 1972, to guide the EIA process.

Tarda submitted the draft EIA to the World Bank in 1983. The Bank's sociological advisors demanded that the resettlement issues be addressed in a timely and fair fashion, but the Bank's Energy Division, which was immediately responsible for the project, opted not to press Tarda. "Throughout the 1980s, there were very few people at the Bank who cared about the social and environmental impacts of Bank projects," says Robert Tillman, an official in the Bank's Africa Region Environment Division.

This may explain why it took the Bank three years to respond to the EIA presented by Tarda and verify how many people would be resettled and how much they would be compensated. A social survey of the area was only carried out when dam construction was virtually completed. "By that time, despite best efforts, it was no longer possible to trace the people who were being displaced and to reconstruct who actually bore the costs," says one Bank official who asked not to be named.

 Michael Cernea, the Bank's senior adviser for social policy and sociology, blames the Kenyan government rather than the Bank for resettlement problems. "This is a case where you had the borrower misleading the Bank by providing inadequate information. The borrower is cheating on his own people and diminishing the benefits of the project because appropriate measures to mitigate problems are not being taken."

 Regardless of the Bank's level of responsibility, the damage to the local population was severe. A confidential 1989 internal World Bank memorandum noted the number of people displaced by the dam was 6,000, six times the original estimate. Important provisions were ignored. There was no resettlement plan, no timetables and no evaluation of the adequacy of compensation. "There is nothing that could explain why this happened. Somebody just dropped the ball," says Tillman.

The displaced villagers went from poor to destitute. A priest from the Kiambere area says, "People here were just told that they had to leave; no alternatives were given to them. They continue to suffer." People lost their land, access to water and pasture for their cattle. Threatened by hunger, many found refuge in surrounding villages, vastly increasing pressures on the land. Reduced fallow periods for arable land and overgrazing of pastures created environmental stress. As a result, people in the communities that absorbed the displaced population also became poorer.

 The dam's electrical transmission lines pass over nearby villages, but not a single volt helps improve the lives of local people. "We are the cheap providers of electricity" says a farmer made landless by the dam.

 The Kiambere situation is by no means unusual. The World Bank's recent report, "Resettlement and Development - The Bankwide Review of Projects Involving Involuntary Resettlement 1986-1993," concludes that violations of its own resettlement policy are common in most Bank projects involving forced relocation. The review mentions Kiambere in two sentences, concluding that families displaced by the Kiambere lost 82 percent of their money-equivalent income (which includes, for example, crops grown for household consumption) due to resettlement.

The Bura irrigation project

 Downstream from the Kiambere dam, the Bura irrigation project is an unmitigated disaster, the result of remarkably poor planning and institutionalized conflicts of interest.

The Bura irrigation project, which the Bank funded in the 1980s, was to irrigate about 35,000 acres to grow cotton and maize at an estimated cost of $98 million. According to the Bank's 1990 Project Performance Audit Report, the area actually irrigated peaked at just about 6,000 acres, while costs shot up to $108 million and social and environmental project components had been canceled. In a country where per capita income is only about $350 per year, the project spent an incredible $55,000 for every settler on the project site. Yet today, these settlers and their families suffer abject poverty and drought and famine are a daily reality. The project has also led to the destruction of evergreen floodplain forests, which were rich in plant and animal species.

 The area is now reminiscent of a ghost town. Huge water towers stand abandoned in the scrubby landscape; irrigation canals stretch across tens of miles, overgrown with thorny vegetation; and a fenced- in vehicle parking lot contains dozens of rusting Land Rovers and large farm machinery. Housing units built for mid-level project staff as well as the villas for the resident managers stand abandoned, dilapidated and looted. Only people with nowhere left to go remain on the project site. They are a community of about 20,000 former herders who sold their cattle, and farmers who left more fertile areas of the country for the promise of irrigated agricultural land.

 Water is a severe problem in the Bura project. Today the only source of water in the area is a murky irrigation reservoir that serves both people and cattle. Large plastic canisters filled with the brownish water from the reservoir are strapped to children's foreheads as they wind their way under a torching sun through thorny scrubs to their homes. Their mothers spend much of the day walking through shadeless heat searching for firewood. Food must be supplied by the United Nations World Food Program. Malnutrition and disease are rampant, especially among the children. The Bura project initially planned to build 20 village health units and various health centers, but these were canceled.

 The settlers in the Bura project come from different parts of Kenya, but share the common fate of being dependent on food hand-outs. Most cannot afford to send their children to school and basic medical care is beyond their reach. "My children are sick, but there is no medicine here," says a woman settler. "There is even not enough animal dung here to repair our houses," she adds, pointing at gaping holes in the mud walls of her house..

Although project managers knew that settlers would need fuel to meet their cooking needs, the project did not address the question. No woodlots were planted early on to provide fuelwood. Settlers had no choice but to plunder the riverine forest, the only green strip of land in this arid region. The forests and wildlife protection component of the Bura Irrigation project never got off the ground, and deforestation ensued.

 Much of the money for the Bura project was borrowed from the World Bank on non-con- cessional terms and will have to be repaid at high interest rates. The Bura project will be a drag on the Kenyan economy for years to come and the debt will have to be repaid in hard currency, adding pressure to increase exports to generate foreign exchange. More country's resources will be diverted to activities such as flower production for European markets, while several million Kenyans risk becoming victims of drought and famine.

"Bura is an example of a classically idiotic project," says Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology who works as a consultant on water projects. "At one point, 50 percent of the Kenyan government's funds for [rural] development were wasted on Bura." The World Bank's 1990 Project Performance Audit Report, a leaked confidential document, indicates that project managers should have been aware of problems and halted the project early on. Technical studies on the lack of suitable soils for irrigation in the area existed but were not taken seriously. Project managers, rushing to get the ill-prepared project approved by the Bank's Board of Directors, downplayed the risks and vastly underestimated its costs.

The Tana River Primate Reserve

 The dirt road from the Bura project toward the coast is in relatively good condition. The road runs through semi-arid land that, unlike many roadsides in Africa, is strangely uninhabited. There are no houses at the roadside and except for the occasional Orma pastoralist in search of pasture for his herd of white, long-horned Zebu cattle, there is no movement along the road.

But moving off the road several miles toward the Tana river, the infertile desert landscape changes into lush forest, the abundant rich soil fertilized by Tana River silt deposits. This is where the Pokomo people, a minority ethnic group of about 50,000 people, live. The area is also home to two rare and endangered primate species, the Crested Mangabey and the Red Colobus. It is these two primate species that are to be protected under the World Bank's biodiversity protection project.

The Tana River Primate Reserve project, which began in 1992, is funded with a grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is run by the World Bank with the junior participation of the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Environment Program. At the Rio Earth Summit, on the condition that it be reformed, the GEF was chosen as the interim mechanism to fund projects under the Climate Treaty and the Biodiversity Convention. A restructuring of the GEF has taken place, but the changes were cosmetic, and the World Bank remains firmly in control. Hence, it is not surprising that GEF projects suffer from many of the same flaws as those of its parent organization.

 World Bank documents on the Tana River GEF project indicate that Bank consultants and staff believe that the conservation of the forest ecosystem where the monkeys live is not compatible with the continued presence of local people in the area. A precondition for the project is that access of Pokomo villagers to the fields and trees in the area be curtailed.

 Yet, Pokomo oral history says the Pokomo themselves brought the Mangabey and Red Colobus to the banks of the Tana River when they migrated there from central Africa more than 600 years ago. Over the centuries they have lived in harmony with the primates. Independent researchers, such as W.O. Ochiago, of the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museums of Kenya, confirm the Pokomos' claim. The primates are actually more numerous near the villages than in abandoned forest lands, and it was the local people who called the attention of researchers to the monkeys in the first place.

 Maintaining access to their fields and trees is a question of life and death for the Pokomo. The villagers are already noticing a decline in the agricultural productivity of their land, which many attribute to the will of divine powers. A more likely explanation is that the Kiambere and other upstream dams which are regulating the river flow have led to reduced flooding of the river plains.

The villagers are still able to grow enough food for themselves and even to produce a surplus of mangoes and bananas which they sell. But, within view of the inhospitable arid land just a short distance away from the river, the Pokomo fear losing their livelihoods if they lose access to the fertile land on the river bank, the huge mango trees and the forest itself, which provides nuts, vines, medicinal plants and many other products that are crucial to the Pokomo.

"We will be reduced to beggars if they interfere with our farming," says a village elder. "We Pokomo are farmers. We have never killed wildlife, but if you beat me because of wildlife, then I will kill the wildlife, because it has become my problem."

 The East African Wildlife Society, a Kenyan non-governmental organization which has been active in the project area for almost 20 years, has helped draw international attention to the local struggle against the project. "This has been a project of non-consultation, non-involvement, non-coordination and non-communication with the local communities and local leadership," says Dr. Nehemiah Rotich, director of the organization. "The GEF project goals are sound. We have to protect the forest and the monkeys. It is only the approach taken that was wrong." Rotich suggests that a project to help deal with the threat would be welcome at this stage and the villagers are ready to cooperate if they would be properly consulted and involved in the project. Their relocation is not necessary and they should be compensated for any losses that they would incur voluntarily, he says.

 As Pokomo opposition to the project solidified, and soon after a May 8, 1993 Kenya Times article headlined "Residents Reject World Bank Plan," the project was suspended. Pokomo hostility to the project is now such that foreign researchers are being warned to stay away from the recently abandoned research station at project site. Although poaching is not a problem in the area, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the parastatal agency in charge of implementing the GEF project, visits the area with heavily armed guards.

Despite World Bank rhetoric about involving local communities in its project, the Tana GEF project is a story of the creation of unnecessary tension and fear that did nothing to foster the cooperation needed to protect a unique ecosystem.

Why do things continue to go wrong?

 Asked about the Bank's unimpressive social and environmental record, a spokesperson in the Bank's External Relations Department, who asked not to be named, explains, "We cannot take responsibility for every project in the past. National governments, local governments and the private sector all are involved." While this is certainly true, it fails to recognize that most of these projects would not be undertaken at all were it not for World Bank support.

 The Bank recognizes that some of its projects have led to environmental problems in days gone by, but claims that new environmental policies and guidelines have turned the Bank into a responsible environmental citizen. Bank President Lewis T. Preston announced in July 1994 that the Bank has committed about $5 billion to projects addressing environmental problems.

The problems with Bank projects now, claim some Bank representatives, lie not with the Bank, but with Third World countries where the projects are carried out. According to Andrew Steer, the newly- appointed head of the Bank's Environment Department, "Implementation of environmental projects in developing countries continues to be difficult because of a lack of technical and administrative capacity and the absence of a[n environmental] constituency." The Tana River projects, however, show that the Bank's progress on social and environmental fronts has largely been confined to a theoretical level that has little relevance for its operations on the ground.

 Environmental impact assessments - as in the case of the Kiambere dam - are of dubious value if they are treated as a mere formality which serves to legitimize projects that are questionable on environmental, social and frequently even economic grounds. Well-intentioned policies, such as the World Bank policy on involuntary resettlement, may as well be non-existent if their provisions are systematically ignored in Bank operations.

 The Bank's internal evaluation of the Bura Irrigation project points out that there is a great potential for conflict of interest and absence of objectivity when the same staff members are in charge of both preparing and appraising a project. Frequently, the same staff members also supervise the projects. There continue to be virtually no systematic checks and balances to ensure that projects involving hundreds of millions of dollars are not converted into the fiefdoms of vested interests within the Bank.

 Community participation and consultations with non-governmental organizations have become the slogan of the day, especially in the context of projects funded under the Global Environment Facility. Yet, as the resistance of the local people in the Tana Primate Reserve project shows, Bank operations have made little headway in becoming more participatory.

 The underlying causes for these costly failures lie within the World Bank's incentive structure, which rewards those members of the Bank's staff who lend the most amount of money. In 1992, Bank President Lewis T. Preston charged a special task force headed by former vice-president Willi Wapenhans, a 30-year veteran of the institution, with examining the Bank's multi-billion-dollar loan portfolio. The outcome, known as the Wapenhans report, documents in detail how the Bank's "pervasive" preoccupation with the rapid approval of new loans has created a focus on moving money rather than paying attention to the on-the-ground impact of its projects. This puts well-intentioned and competent World Bank staff who are dedicated to the Bank's stated goals of poverty alleviation and protection of the environment at a definite disadvantage, since there is a built-in bias against small-scale, long-term endeavors that emphasize community participation and local knowledge in managing natural resources.

 The Bank's predilection for large-scale, capital-intensive projects closely matches the interests of top government officials in most borrowing countries, as huge investments help feed political patronage systems and large procurement contracts may offer opportunities to siphon off funds that cannot be found in small-scale, labor-intensive projects.

An important step that the Bank must take to make good on its environmental and social claims is to release its staff from the pressure to move money quickly and reward them on the basis of the long- term beneficial impacts of their projects. Unfortunately, as the Bank expands into the former communist countries and into the new field of so-called environmental projects, there has been little movement in this direction.