World Bank back in big infrastructure – Briscoe

World Bank policy on large projects has done an about-turn in the last year. John Briscoe, Senior Water Advisor to the Bank, explained the new strategy in an interview with Robin Wiseman at the recent IWA Congress in Marrakech

In 2003, the World Bank did a very detailed review of the 1993 Water Resources Management Policy & Strategy. The conclusion was that the implementation of the Dublin Principles on water management from the 1992 Water & Environment Conference will take many decades and is a process in which even the most advanced countries are maybe only halfway there.

“It was agreed that the Bank has to be much more practical about what is possible because when we reviewed experiences around the world, efforts at integrated water management mostly came to nothing.

“This is mostly about politics. Here in Morocco, for example, the problem of groundwater extraction is huge and it is putting tremendous stress on the economy. If the Bank were to come in and say, ‘We’d like water management to be integrated,’ the politicians would not buy it. However, if we address the specific problem, requiring the use of the principles of integrated water resource management, then the politicians will accept it, because we have solved the immediate problem too.

“The international community, including the World Bank, is focusing much more on poverty reduction. When you say ‘water’ and ‘poverty’, people say: ‘That’s a billion people who don’t have water supply and sanitation, that’s what water and poverty is about.’ I agree, but it is about much more than that.

“On the macro level, you can have major developments that affect the resource sectors, like an Aswan dam for instance. You can also have resource interventions that are targeted at poor people, like micro-watershed management. On the server side, you can have resources targeted at poor people, like hand pumps in rural areas, but also utility reform, which affects everybody.

“The World Bank decided that any sensible government is going to be taking action in all of these areas. It is reductionist to say that water poverty is only about providing water services for poor people.

“I feel very strongly about the controversy surrounding the major infrastructure issue, the ‘big dam’ debate. Essentially, countries that have huge endowments, that have spent decades building infrastructure, and who live by the electricity and the food and the water they have thereby produced, are saying to countries that have nothing: ‘You shouldn’t have any.’

“If you look at cubic metres of water in storage in the US, it is 5000m3, Australia is about the same, Ethiopia has 50m3. For me, this is absolutely unethical,

“Norway sits on our board of governors, they have used 90% of their hydropower potential and become rich on hydro, as Switzerland has, and they tell Laos and Uganda: ‘You can’t have it, you can make do with windmills and solar.’ This is fundamentally immoral. (See page 8)

“The voices of the NGOs advocating ‘small is beautiful’ is very strong in Europe and this resulted in a very large collision occurring on the board of the World Bank. The more organised of the developing countries, for example, China, Brazil and India, came out very strongly and eventually united. They said: ‘We’ve had enough of people telling us to do things that they’ve never done and don’t do today, telling us to meet standards that they can’t meet themselves.’

“Basically, the middle-income countries walked away from the Bank saying that it was completely impractical to do business with us. Ironically, that left only the smaller countries, those with much less capacity to do what the middle countries could not and would not do and what the rich countries had never done. This was less about water and more about attacking the institution of the Bank.

“Consequently, a strong commitment has come from the World Bank. Spending on major water infrastructure had just about stopped in the last 10-15 years. However, now we are back in that business, with the obvious corollary to do things that make environmental, social, and economic sense.

“Friends of the Earth is never going to accept any of this, nor is the Environmental Defence Fund. We do not expect them to accept it and we do not give them the veto, because this is what irks the developing countries so much.

“The Chinese said explicitly, ‘We wish you had been in on Three Gorges because this is the kind of very big, very complicated, fiscally difficult project where we need your help.’ The Bank is going to get back into projects that are not necessarily politically popular with the people who are affected, or with the northern press.

“This will not be to the exclusion of other things – we are going to do the other things, but infrastructure is our business. If we look at it as a toolbox, now there is not going to be a part of that toolbox that is locked to developing countries. We are going to look at the full range of tools and do whatever makes sense.

“Our relations with countries on water have changed dramatically, we have become a better trusted partner. Countries are asking us to do all sorts of things at national level that we were dying to do before, because we are less encumbered. Previously, they did not believe we were serious. It is very important that, even if we are not necessarily going to lend a lot, we are back as a legitimate partner.

“The Nile Initiative is a good illustration of this water strategy. Through the project manager’s enormous force of personality and commitment, we have brought the ten countries of the Nile together. It is very exciting that water can be a catalyst for peace and it is absolutely critical that the Bank will make investments because only big investments will seal this.

“The Indus basin was the same, if the Bank had not invested in Pakistan after the Indus Treaty, it would never have happened. Investments are the key.

“There is going to be a lot of investment in hydro in the developing world, and this is now being done by companies that are operating closer to liberal power regimes. In India, where I am now based, hydro is one of the big contemporary water development issues. Many good multi-purpose sites are being developed exclusively for hydropower. Opportunities for classic multi-purpose water development are actually being forgone because there is not a corresponding string on the public side.

“For the Bank, it is very important to ensure that these key investments provide broader benefits than simply electricity. The hydropower people want the perfect dam, with no people displaced, a small reservoir run of the river dam. This produces none of the benefits of irrigation or flood control or any type of mitigation. Integration has become quite lost as the hydro industry has become sharper.

“Irrigation is very important for developing countries. It is the biggest water user and we are not trying to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation. We are trying to get people more jobs and more goods out of the water by doing it sustainably.

“The Bank cannot go to a politician in a developing country and say, ‘We’d like you to do conservation.’ Instead we say, ‘Look you can get more employment, more productivity, more sustainability out of this,’ and the policitician will reply, ‘Yes, I’m interested in that’.

“World Bank strategy is about changing people’s lives in a practical way. Conservation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. For some people it is an end in itself but you cannot do that in developing countries like you can in developed countries. There are groups who do it, but show me the politician that is running on conservation.”

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