Villagers near the canals in Sindh, Pakistan.

National Drainage Program

For five decades, the World Bank has shaped Pakistan’s approach to irrigation and spent billions on the construction of canals and large dams that today constitute the world’s largest water diversion scheme, the Indus Basin Irrigation System. 

In the 1980s, the World Bank realized that its approach to Pakistan’s water sector had created massive problems of water logging and salinity in the heavily irrigated province of Punjab. In response, the Bank decided to build large drainage canals to divert agricultural run-off from Punjab to the Arabian Sea. The $1 billion Left Bank Outfall Drain was constructed to solve irrigation problems in Punjab, followed by the World Bank-funded National Drainage Program. But the design of the canals impacted the region's farmers, fishermen and villagers.

In 2006, an independent investigation by the World Bank Inspection Panel found that the design of the projects was faulty and that the Bank violated key internal rules when building the canals. The project’s flaws led to the loss of lives and livelihoods and to the large-scale destruction of wetlands.

Breaches in the canal caused polluted waters to flow onto surrounding fields and wetlands. Plants and animals in the wetlands — where 15,000 people live — have died, fish species are declining and drinking water has become salty. Natural disasters, notably the 2003 floods that killed 100 people and 5,000 animals, were compounded by drainage projects, according to the investigation.

The people affected by the drainage scheme now demand compensation for their losses. However, more than one year after the completion of the Panel's investigation, the Bank still has not mitigated the impacts of the project.