Early Warning System Success in Chennai, India

It all comes down to early access to information – and access to the decision-makers.

In January of this year, our Early Warning System (the first global webtool to centralize information on development bank-funded projects that have the highest likelihood of negative social and environmental impacts) flagged a $400 million World Bank project aiming to improve water and sanitation in Chennai, India.

The recent disastrous flooding in the area points to the need for this infrastructure, but without community participation, odds are high that such a project could do more harm than good.

Our team analyzed the investment, identifying additional human rights risks that were not adequately addressed in the World Bank’s review of the project, including the loss of livelihood, air and noise pollution, and the displacement of hundreds of families. Concluding the project was likely to have significant adverse impacts, our Early Warning System team contacted partners in Chennai, to alert them to the proposed development.

Because local residents in Chennai were able to learn about the project before it had been approved, they could send their concerns directly to the Executive Directors of the World Bank. Although the funding was ultimately approved, the US Executive Director abstained from voting due to its “concern[s] about the environmental and social impacts” of the project.

Since then, communities have successfully secured public hearings to discuss the project and resettlement plans in the local Tamil language. They have also succeeded in persuading local authorities to introduce improvements that would benefit a much larger population. If the promised changes go through, 98,000 people stand to benefit from improvements to basic infrastructure and public health facilities.

Too often, development decisions that are made in board rooms without input from local communities end up doing more harm than good. By ensuring communities know about development projects before they’re a done deal, our Early Warning System ensures people can meaningfully engage in decisions that could affect their land, health, and livelihoods.

Originally posted December 18, 2015