Cambodian aid project partly funded by Australia led to child deaths, report finds

A project partly funded by Australia to rebuild Cambodia’s dilapidated railway was deeply flawed, caused harm to thousands of impoverished people and contributed to the deaths of several children, an internal review has found.

Thirteen-year-old Hut Heap and her nine-year-old brother Hut Hoeub drowned in a pond in search for water after their family was uprooted from their home to allow work to begin on the rail project in May 2010.

A scathing review found the family and 50 others taken to a resettlement site were not provided with potable water, violating compliance of the Asian Development Bank’s rules on resettling people.

“Any reasonable person would conclude that the resettled people, including the children concerned, would resort to other sources of water in this situation,” a report by the bank’s Compliance Review Panel found. “It was foreseeable that an accident of this nature could happen,” it said.

Fairfax Media reported in November 2010 that the children went to the eight-metre pond because there was no fresh piped water at the resettlement site in Battambang province.  When Hut Hoeub fell in  his sister tried to save him but they both drowned.

The 180-page report said the $US140 million ($156 million) project caused “direct, adverse and material harm” to thousands of evicted families.

The project is operated by Toll Royal Railway, a subsidiary of Melbourne firm Toll Holdings and its partner, Cambodia’s Royal Group of Companies, and financed by the Asian Development Bank and the former Australian development agency AusAid.

The report said another resettled child was killed when hit by a vehicle while walking a longer than usual distance home from school.

An estimated 4000 families, most of them impoverished, were forced from their homes to make way for the strategically important railway that will link Singapore and China through Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The report, released after a 17-month investigation, said there were major flaws when the Asian Development Bank designed the project in 2006.  The report identified inadequate consultation with affected families, a lack of indexed compensation for them and replacement houses that were of such a poor standard that they did not improve the situation of the resettled families.

Formed in the 1960s to facilitate economic growth in Asia’s developing countries with the aim of alleviating poverty, the project in Cambodia actually drove families deeper into debt and poverty, the report said.

Resettlement sites were far from families’ jobs and there were “consideration inaccuracies” in inventories for the properties that families were forced to leave. Some families were given only $US200 to relocate.

The report said families should be given up to $US4 million in additional compensation.  It said the bank’s staff must “undergo a mind shift” in their approach to future resettlement projects.

Mistakes were “particularly grievous” because they repeated many of the same mistakes made on a past road building project undertaken by the bank, the report said.

Human rights groups and non-government organisations have been campaigning for the bank and AusAid to do more for the families.

“It is an outrage that the ADB failed to act all these years while people fell into a spiral of debt and poverty after the resettlement plans it approved turned out to be disastrous,” said David Pred, managing director of the NGO Inclusive Development International, one of the campaigners.

In October 2012, 30 of the affected families filed a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission over what they said were breaches of basic human rights.

Following the report’s release the bank has promised to consult those involved in the project, including families, before working out a plan of action within two months.

AusAid, the agency responsible at the time for managing Australia’s overseas aid program, rejected criticisms of the project in 2012, saying it was “fully consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations”.

AusAid had provided $US23.5 million for the project in two tranches.

The agency was integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year. A spokesman for the department said the Australian government supported the decision of the bank to bring the project into full compliance with its safeguard policies, as recommended by the review panel.

“Although Australia no longer finances works on the railway, we look forward to working constructively with partners responsible for implementation of the report’s recommendations,” the spokesman said.

Comment was being sought from Toll Royal Railway, which has a 30-year contract to build and run the railway.

The story Cambodian aid project partly funded by Australia led to child deaths, report finds first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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