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Nov 15, 2008

Asian Development Bank Project Fails Fishermen

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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

A planned survey to check the economic pulse of fishing communities living on the banks of South-east Asia's largest freshwater lake -- the Tonle Sap in Cambodia -- threatens to expose serious shortcomings in an Asian Development Bank (AsDB) anti-poverty initiative.

The survey, to commence late April, stems out of the critical view a Cambodian non-governmental organisation (NGO), Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), has of a ‘development' project that the Manila-based AsDB launched in October 2002. The five-year-long Tonle Sap Initiative (TSI), set out, among other things, to improve the lives of the communities that depend on the lake's fish for their livelihood.

But four years later, the AsDB's flagship ‘pro-poor development initiative' in one of the region's poorest countries is still stuck in the mud of basic details. ‘'Most of the people living around the Tonle Sap still don't know what this project is really about. Some only have heard of it by name,'' says Raingsey Pen, project leader of ‘Tonle Sap Watch' at the Phnom Penh-based FACT.

This ignorance is due to a lack of participation by the people from the beginning of this project, he said in telephone interview from the Cambodian capital. ‘'NGOs who have been monitoring this initiative have complained to the AsDB that most of the documents have not been translated into the local language and are only available in English.''

The information gulf between the bank and the Tonle Sap's poor has been noted by Oxfam, the international development agency. ‘'There is a general lack of awareness about the TSI,'' says Jessica Rosien, who authored a study last year for Oxfam's Australia office on this body of water. ‘‘Can the AsDB save the Tonle Sap from poverty? There has been too little involvement of the people who were supposed to benefit,'' she told IPS.

The AsDB concedes that some of the criticisms by NGOs are relevant. ‘'We have heard some of the concerns by NGOs and they are valid,'' Mahfuz Ahmed, senior agriculture economist at the bank, said in an interview from Manila. ‘'Running this project from Phnom Penh is not easy. People's participation is a core feature of this project. We have got to be more aggressive.''

Even at a formal meeting this month in Phnom Penh between the regional bank and Cambodian government officials, the AsDB let slip the difficulty it was facing in being more inclusive just as the TSI enters its final year. ‘'There is a risk that some of the poor and marginalised could be increasingly left behind,'' Urooj Malik, director of the agriculture, environment and natural resources division at the Bank, said during the mid-March forum. ‘'It is vital to involve them more in the process of formulating policies designed to improve their conditions.''

The Tonle Sap, which receives water from the Mekong river, plays a central part in feeding Cambodia with its rich supply of fresh-water fish. Fishing on this lake, which expands from 2,500 sq km to 13,000 sq km during the May - October flood season, provides food and incomes to about one million Cambodians.

The poor living along the banks of the Tonle Sap are part of the nearly 40 percent of Cambodia's 13.8 million population living below the poverty line.

These were the communities that the bank hoped to aid as part of the TSI. This initiative aimed to be ‘'a partnership of organisations and people working to meet the poverty and environment challenges of the Tonle Sap,'' states the AsDB on its website.

In July 2003, the bank added the ‘Tonle Sap Basin Strategy' to the TSI as part of its broader Cambodia country programme to meet a 2007 deadline. This was deemed ‘'consistent with AsDB's water policy and worldwide trend towards managing land, water and biotic resources within a framework of basin units,'' adds the bank.

In fact, the second pillar of the TSI was singled out as the ‘Tonle Sap Sustainable Livelihoods Project,' which was estimated to cost 19.7 million US dollars, with 15 million dollars coming from the Asian Development Fund and 4.7 million dollars from the Finnish government. The project aimed to improve the economy of the fishing communities by assuring the locals a role in choosing, planning and managing small programmes for their benefit.

Yet, as the Oxfam report revealed, public participation is ‘'low in proportion to the number of projects of the AsDB's Tonle Sap Basin portfolio.'' Further, it is also ‘'difficult to trace whether and how the recommendations from community members were or were not incorporated into the final project design.''

And for AsDB watchdogs like FACT, nothing conveys the bank's distance from its intended beneficiaries more than the departure from its original promise of creating new fishing communities in addition to strengthening existing ones. ‘'The project sought to improve the fishing communities by establishing 500 more around the Tonle Sap,'' says Pen. ‘'But until now we have not seen a new fishing community that was promised.''

Source: Asia Water Wire


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