Delta planning: 60 Years of shared water solutions

Written by Chris Zevenbergen, on 3 January 2017

Bangladesh and the Netherlands have a long history of cooperation over water issues. Both countries face similar challenges with low lying deltas vulnerable to flooding which affects densely populated areas. However, alongside these similarities, are different approaches to solutions. The Netherlands has typically focussed on prevention using large infrastructure solutions, while Bangladesh has more prominently relied on preparedness. Consequently both countries have much to learn from each other and have been doing so over the last decades, with IHE Delft at the table through-out.

The multiple challenges of a country that is a delta, along a vulnerable coastal area

As the largest delta in the world and with a population well over 150 million, Bangladesh is a country that faces formidable challenges. Its low-lying coastal regions often experience tropical cyclones and monsoon flooding (affecting up to 25% of the country annually) bringing widespread devastation, including a risk to life, destruction to property and causing health problems through the transmission of disease and contaminated drinking water. At the same time its rivers and floodplains, which make up 80% of the country, support life, livelihoods and the economy. Climate change, combined with rapid population growth, is likely to make the situation worse. Some estimates suggest that by 2050 an extra 15% of the country could be vulnerable to flooding, impacting more than 30 million people in the coastal districts. In addition to regularly bearing the brunt of natural hazards, according to the UN in excess of 63 million people live below the poverty line, with the ensuing impact on health and education levels.

Despite these challenges, Bangladesh is striving to attain middle-income status by 2021, reducing poverty levels across the board while increasing livelihoods and achieving sustainable growth. Recent years have seen rapid industrialization and a spike in rural to urban migration. It has been widely acknowledged that the country has made remarkable progress, with its economic model delivering growth at around 6% per year and reducing extreme poverty from the 50% levels of 2000, to around 30% in 2010 (UNDP).

Bangladesh met many of its Millennium Development Goal targets, increasing primary school enrolment, gender parity in schools and food security, while lowering infant and maternal mortality. A large part of the future challenge will be to ensure that economic and social development does not come at the cost of environmental considerations, including effective water management and the reduction of water related risks. 

Maintaining development relevance

From the beginning, IHE Delft’s capacity building work with Bangladesh has often been conducted through the framework of agreements reached between the governments of the Netherlands and Bangladesh. A recently published overview of this decades-long cooperation clustered the resulting initiatives around five thematic areas: water resource management, coastal zone management, socio-economic development, food security and land reclamation. Throughout this period IHE Delft has had to adapt to the changing development landscape in order to continue to maintain its development relevance and continue to offer added value.

Initial water management interventions in Bangladesh were often characterised as being of the technical, stand-alone variety. For example the 1964 Master Plan created large scale drainage and/or irrigation infrastructure. However, subsequently it became clear that these predominantly engineering-led solutions often neglected to adequately consider their impact on industrial and domestic water use, fishing and bio-diversity, amongst other concerns. A consequence was a growing understanding amongst development actors, including IHE Delft, of the need for an integrated approach to the cultivation of land, water and human potential. Additionally, it was understood that to truly maximize impact, initiatives should be participatory, involving key stakeholders in decision making.

Embracing these new paradigms IHE Delft and its alumni have contributed, down the years, to efforts that build on improvements to the functioning of the surrounding water systems, policies and practices, with varying degrees of success. Early initiatives such as The Delta Development Project (1976) sought to increase benefits across a number of inter-related spheres including flood resilience, poverty alleviation, agricultural productivity, livelihoods and social services. The decades since have also seen many initiatives seeking an integrated balance between socio/economic development and water-related technological advance such as the Land Reclamation Projects (1977) the Compartmentalization Project (1990), the Char Development and Settlement Project-I (CDSP-I 1994/1999), followed by CDSP-II, CDSP-III and CDSP-IV, the Dutch funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (2005) and the recently closed Water Management Improvement Project (2007). Despite successes, water management efforts were often still implemented in relative isolation, sometimes also lacking the necessary broad stakeholder support to create longer term traction.

Towards an integrated, long term water management vision for Bangladesh

Drawing on the collective experience of both the successes and failings of water management efforts, in order to respond to current and future water related threats, the Bangladesh Government has set out Delta Plan 2100. This water safety and food security strategic vision for Bangladesh, developed since its inauguration in 2014 with a consortium of Bangladeshi and Dutch experts including IHE Delft, proposes long-term coordinated planning. The plan, which is led by the Bangladesh General Economics Division of the Ministry of Planning, will enable adaptive water governance where management and water related policies can be decentralized, while still allowing the relevant sectors to cooperate. Operating under this overarching strategy, encompassing 19 issues arranged into 8 operational blocks, projects will be aligned in such a way as to function as pathways towards the vision and desirable impact.

The Delta Plan is designed to deliver holistic impact including natural resource conservation (especially of the river floodplains and coastal ecosystems), good governance (through a focus on strengthening institutional arrangements) and capacity building, increasing equality and justice across sectors. The plan, which is exploring sustainable funding mechanisms with provision from the Dutch Government as well as the World Bank, also crucially contributes to Bangladesh’s economic growth and poverty alleviation ambitions by providing access for Dutch business to the Bangladesh market.  

DeltaCap: IHE Delft’s contribution to developing the water professionals of the future

For the Delta Plan to succeed requires skilled and experienced water professionals able to understand and respond to the complexity of current and future water-related challenges. Deltacap (2017-2020) is a project which has just launched, jointly led by IHE Delft and Wageningen University and Research and implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Bangladesh. It is set up to develop water management skills and capacity, through training and knowledge transfer opportunities.

IHE Delft will be involved in enabling an understanding about, and use of, longer term planning tools. These include: integrated assessments and scenario building; coordination of planning and maintenance at national level with that at local/district level; development of integrated, pro-poor, ecosystem based and gender-sensitive solutions; use of participatory water management techniques; integrated and inter-sectoral assessments for longer term planning, vulnerability and risk assessment; policy development for transboundary water management and diplomacy; and identification/integration of multi-benefits to end-users. The Institute will contribute to the development and facilitation of training activities as well as the creation of a Sustainable Delta Management Centre, a knowledge sharing hub for lectures, practical exercises as well as the collation and assessment of field work. It will also coordinate capacity development initiatives in Bangladesh.

Working through the Bangladesh Wing of the Delta Alliance, a knowledge-driven network of delta professionals, will give DeltaCap two principle advantages. Firstly, it will help with the coordination of the numerous Bangladeshi delta management entities which function both as providers and recipients of new knowledge. Secondly, as sustainable delta management activities need scaling up nationally, the project can benefit from the support of the Delta Alliance through Bangladesh Wing partners. Internationally it can also be replicated across other deltas, tailored to specific regional needs.

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