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The controversy involving a foreign-funded wastewater treatment plant in Thailand grew last week after the Thai government refused to allow an independent inspection team review the project's environmental and economic worth.
Civil society groups, campaigning on behalf of some 60,000 villagers in the project area of Klong Dan and Song Klong, say they will continue their protests despite this latest setback. Activists insist that the project could turn villagers into victims of the ill-planning and corruption allegedly engulfing the expensive scheme. Most of the villagers depend on the rich marine resources and the environment in the project's surrounding area, mostly for mussel farming.
The US$750 million Samut Prakarn Wastewater Treatment Project is backed by the Thai government and the financial muscle of Asia Development Bank, (ADB) a multilateral sister of the Washington-based World Bank. The ADB is providing $230 million with the rest being raised by the Thai government. Japan Bank is contributing about $60 million to the project
Both the bank and the Thai government have rejected the claims by activists. However, in response to the residents' fears, the bank said last year it was dispatching an independent panel to verify the complaints and to document whether the ADB's management, the bank's branch that runs the project, complied with its own policies, set by the bank's board.
"The ADB's credibility and accountability is at stake here," said Nurina Widagdo, Asia projects manager at the Bank Information Center (BIC), a Washington-based watchdog of development and international financial institutions. "The ADB can ensure the compliance of the Thai government. They [the Bank] are just not doing it. They are wrong."
The negative response to the inspection mission by the Thai government is seen as a blow to local efforts to stop or re-design the project. Jane Garrido, an activist with BIC, said the rejection brings the whole concept of independent inspection by independent experts of the ADB's projects to a "farce". The panel would have been the first inspection conducted under the ADB's Inspection Function Policy, approved in December 1995.
It is not clear now what the fate of the project will be but campaigners agree that the ADB stands to lose its reputation if it did not manage to convince the Thai government to allow the inspection.
The residents are not giving up. They say they will present a petition to the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at Government House in Bangkok on Monday to get him to allow the inspection panel.
But despite the claims by environmentalists, the Manila-based bank has maintained that the project would benefit women and low-income families, living close to factories and low-lying flood-prone areas, who are most exposed to polluted waterways.
ADB's project online documents say the loan was approved because the project will "improve the quality of the environment, public health and welfare in Samut Prakarn province", one of five provinces comprising the Bangkok Metropolitan Region where about 1.2 million residents and 4,000 factories generate large wastewater flows.
"Because of the severity of the province's problem, the government declared it a pollution control area in 1994, which ensures it priority for funding for environmental improvements," the bank said.
But this is not how local residents see it. People living near the project have fought a nearly three-year battle. On occasions, they have raided the site, obstructing construction workers, using their political clout by threatening to withhold their votes from politicians supporting the project.
Residents say the 500,000 cubic meters of treated wastewater that would be produced daily would flow into the sea and dilute the salinity level, vital for mussel farming, an important source of income in the area. The site is also expected to produce 50 tonnes of sludge each day.
The ADB says residents' concerns are unfounded and in January, ADB president Tadao Chino dismissed many of the charges following an ADB interdepartmental report, which declared that the Bank had generally complied with its operational policies.