KYOTO — The Asian Development Bank talks about spending trillions of dollars to eliminate poverty, promote sustainable economic development and reduce the global threat of greenhouse gases.

But Titi Soentoro just wishes it would learn how to properly spend a few thousand dollars on decent permanent housing.

Soentoro is from Indonesia’s Aceh province, the area hit hardest by the Asian tsunami of December 2004. In the weeks and months following the disaster, one of the most pressing needs of the survivors was shelter.

Independent nongovernmental organizations, as well as the Red Crescent Society, rushed in to fill the need. They built large permanent shelters, and provided sanitation facilities and large modern kitchens.

Some NGOs even built raised shelters to better catch the cooling ocean breezes.

And then there were the shelters built by local contractors but funded by the ADB.

“The ADB shelters, designed for a family of five or six, were only 36 sq. meters. The septic tanks were not buried, and were placed 3 meters from the kitchen area. Other NGO-built facilities were sometimes twice that size and had buried the septic tanks at least 10 meters away from the kitchen,” said Soentoro, who was attending the Asian Development Bank meetings in Kyoto this weekend as an NGO representative.

For many in Asia who have to live with the consequences of ADB-funded projects, the Aceh shelters are one comparatively minor example of what’s wrong with the way the bank operates.

More serious are large-scale projects that, though often conceived with the best of intentions, end up creating social and environmental havoc because of a lack of oversight on the part of the bank, weak or nonexistent environmental regulations in the host country, and corruption on the part of local officials and contractors.

One of the most controversial ADB-related projects is Thailand’s Mae Moh coal-fired power station. The ADB has poured more than $500 million into the project since it was built in the 1970s, although it has not granted any new loans since the early 1990s.

Greenpeace estimates the aging plant produces some of the largest amounts of sulfur dioxide in Southeast Asia, and local activists are calling for it to be shut down.

“At least 80 percent of the 20,000 residents who live around the Mae Moh plant suffer from chronic respiratory syndrome and several people have died. The crops around the plant have been ruined, driving farmers out of business. The ADB has totally ignored the social, health and environmental damages that have resulted,” said Maliwan Nakwirot, a representative of local communities around the plant.

The Mae Moh plant serves as a warning to opponents of coal power projects elsewhere in Asia that have yet to, but may soon, get ADB assistance. In Bangladesh, the ADB is considering funding a coal mining project in Phulbari, despite strong opposition. A final decision could come as early as October.

Last August, opposition to the plant turned violent when police fired on a group of protesters estimated to have numbered 20,000 people. Three people were killed and more than 200 were wounded.

“Environmental experts weighed in strongly against the Phulbari project. If the mine is built, it will cover over 10,000 hectares. It’s expected to contaminate 600 sq. km of water and displace at least 200,000 people. Given strong local opposition, why is the ADB even thinking about supporting the project?” asked Anu Mohammed, head of a Bangladeshi NGO opposed to the mine.

The ADB boasts an environmental safeguards policy as well as policies for indigenous peoples and involuntary resettlement. The bank has acknowledged that its projects displace 100,000 to 150,000 people in Asia each year.

Both environmental and human rights activists say these policies, while usually up to international standards on paper, are often ignored in practice, are too vague or weak to be affective, or are simply not enforced by bank officials. They said the ADB could learn a lot by studying similar policies of the World Bank.

“The ADB’s environmental categorization is significantly weaker than that of the World Bank, which requires all projects classified as sensitive to undergo an environmental assessment. But such an assessment is not always required for ADB projects classified as sensitive,” said Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, an American NGO.

On involuntary resettlement issues, activists acknowledge the ADB’s current policy is in line with international standards, at least in terms of application once a project has been agreed on.

But they note the World Bank and other multilateral banks like the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank preface their policy statements with warnings about the grave risks associated with involuntary resettlement. The ADB has nothing as direct.

Nessim Ahmad, the ADB’s director of environmental and social safeguards, said the bank is currently reviewing its safeguards policy.

“Whatever is decided, the bank will not weaken existing safeguards. Nor will the proposal, if enacted, to align the bank’s practices with the interest of a country, as opposed to a specific sector, represent a move away from internationally recognized standards regarding the environment, indigenous peoples or resettlement standards,” Ahmad said at a meeting Saturday with NGO representatives.

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