Behind the Lines

World Bank Leaks

AN INTERNAL WORLD BANK MEMO obtained by the Inter-Press Service reveals that a preliminary safety survey of 25 Indian dams found that none of them were designed to contain the amount of water that current estimates suggest would rush into their reservoirs in the event of an unusually severe storm.

 Though the survey covered in the memo includes two of India 's largest dams, Hirakud and Gandhi Sagar, the problems found in the survey are described as the "tip of the iceberg." The surveyed dams account for less than 3 percent of the 947 dams in the safety project's jurisdiction: the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

 At least 2,000 people died in India's worst dam disaster to date when the Machhu II Dam failed in 1979 after being hit with twice the amount of water it was built to hold. Because Machhu II was situated in a relatively remote location, the February 1, 1995 memo says that the failures of either Harakud or Gandhi Sagar would "dwarf" the earlier disaster. Harakud and Gandhi Sagar are considerably larger than Machhu II and were built in "highly populated valleys." The memo was written by William Price of the World Bank's Asia Technical Division.

 "The World Bank's findings show that the Indian government should halt ongoing dam projects until there is a public review of dam safety in India and measures to minimize the risk to downstream populations are put in place," says a statement from Himanshu Thakker, an engineer with India's Save the Narmada Movement. Thakker says last year's monsoon ripped "an 80-foot-deep hole" out of the concrete and rock foundation of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River.

"If the number of deaths from future dam bursts is to be minimized, the World Bank and the Indian government must make public the risk to people living downstream of dams," says a statement from International Rivers Network campaigns director Patrick McCully. "It is cynical and grossly negligent to put lives at risk by not informing people of the real possibility of dam failures," McCully's statement says.

 Bank spokesperson Paul Mitchell calls the internal memo "a public document," but says some people have misinterpreted it. When the Bank loaned India money to conduct the dam safety project several years ago, he says, it was estimated that two-thirds of Indian dams did not meet current safety standards. The way peak flood levels are estimated has changed since many of the dams were built, he says. "It doesn't mean the dams are unsafe," says Mitchell, who says the memo considers floods with a "one-in- 10,000 chance" of occurring.


Changing Bank Faces

U.S. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON'S PICK to head the World Bank, Wall Street investment banker James Wolfensohn, troubles some Bank critics.

 "Once again, a Wall Street insider has landed the job of World Bank President," says Juliette Majot of International Rivers Network, a founding member of the 50 Years is Enough Campaign, which advocates far-reaching Bank reform. "It is Mr. Wolfensohn's international commercial banking connections, and not his knowledge of the very real needs of poverty-stricken women, men and children of the developing world, that brings him to the World Bank," she says. "He is being hired as a private sector magician, to funnel funds through an institution whose primary role is to lend to the public sector, and have [the funds] come out on the other end in the private sector. It is a public-risk, private-gain game."

 Patricia Adams, executive director of Toronto-based Probe International, says the best that can be hoped for is that Wolfensohn will build on the work of his predecessor, Lewis T. Preston, in promoting Bank openness. The danger of recruiting a Bank president from the private sector, however, is that the business culture does not promote broad disclosure of information, Adams says.

 Adams parts company with 50 Years is Enough, arguing that the Bank should be abolished - not reformed - because no president is capable of reforming its fundamental failures. "The Bank is, in many ways, a Frankenstein," she says. "None of the parties that created it can control it. The only thing that the United States can do is to withdraw funding. That would probably bring down the Bank - which is fine."

 A Bank spokesperson said Wolfensohn would be unavailable for comment until he begins his new job on June 1. Wolfensohn's acceptance statement expresses admiration for the work of his predecessor. "To follow Lew Preston is a privilege and responsibility," Wolfensohn's statement says. "He has taken a number of major initiatives which I shall follow."

Corporate Contract

CORPORATE SPECIAL INTEREST POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES (PACs) tied to companies that will benefit from the Contract with America contributed over $21 million to House Republicans during the last election cycle, according to a study released by Citizen Action.

 The report, "Contract with Special Interests: The Quid Pro Quo Behind the Contract With America," shows that House Speaker Newt Gingrich led all candidates in such contributions with nearly $425,000.

 Corporate and other special interest PACs invested more than $76 million in the elections of 1994.

 Special interest beneficiaries include those benefiting from the Contract's tax cuts, weakening of health, safety and environmental regulations, weakening of product liability law, defense spending increases, taxpayer payments for " regulatory takings," and repeal of the ban on assault weapons.

 "Contrary to their rhetoric, the House Republicans are conducting business as usual, except that they are even cozier with the powerful special interests that have financed their campaigns," says Citizen Action's Michael Podhorzer.

The leading House Republican recipients of PAC contributions were Gingrich, Commerce Committee chair Thomas Bliley ($247,562) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay ($246,024).


- Andrew Wheat and Russell Mokhiber