Understanding the politics and potentials of flows of people and water in two dynamic deltas

Written by Michelle Kooy & Emma Meurs, on 21 May 2015

Supporting non-linear delta disaster risk planning & pro-poor sustainable urban development in the delta areas in the Netherlands and Bangladesh. This is the aim of a new Urbanizing Deltas of the World project, financed by NWO's Global research for development (WOTRO). Project leader Michelle Kooy, Senior Lecturer in Water Governance at IHE Delft explains how the Netherlands and Bangladeshi project partners wish to challenge the currently dominant linear thinking and planning in regards to water disasters, risk, and urban development.

Rural poverty vs. urban poverty

“Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change impacts. The urban population of cities like Dhaka, Khulna or Chittagong is growing at a rate above the global norm. However, Bangladesh has not yet paid any significant attention to urban development, and specifically urban poverty. We call this a rural bias. But the low income settlements (urban slum or peri-urban informal settlements) in these big cities are growing as a result of the number of people who migrate seeking better opportunities in life. This is related to the loss of livelihood in rural areas, influenced by environmental impacts such as river bank erosion, sea level rise and salinization of soil and water, but it is not a direct relationship. Rural residents are losing land and livelihood opportunities because of the interaction between these environmental impacts and socio-political processes that see them excluded from post-disaster recovery benefits, or land reallocation (chars), or exclusion by local power brokers.

“Through the support of existing urban coalitions between civil society, government, and private sector, we are encouraging an urban platform in order to change the type of language and perception of slum dwellers in the city. The government either completely ignores them, or they are seen negatively.

Migration because of climate change?

“The Bangladeshi government works via the narrative that climate change equals migration, migration equals poverty and more urban poverty equals conflict and insecurity. We, along with others, are instead highlighting how this process is not only a result of climate change, but it’s actually mediated by local relations of power, which determine where post-disaster benefits and reallocation are distributed, to whom - shapes people’s decisions whether they are able to stay or whether they are able to move. Saying that all of this movement is a result of solely ''natural'' processes or based on environmental impacts is not correct. Migration of people is linked to the way post-disaster programmes are rolled out, for example with regard to post disaster land allocation, and well known in the char lands of the north-west.  We aim to challenge this assumption by demonstrating other factors that influence urban migration, and supporting better local governance. Documenting who moves, where, for how long, why, how they cope in their new environments, and how they could be better supported to access services and make contributions to urban society.

“Within the city of Dhaka specifically, we aim to support other NGOs and civil society coalitions in changing the perception of urban migrants and slum dwellers. The Bangladeshi government have been concerned about the high numbers of migration for a while now. Donors fund a lot of quantitative research, which is very linear. They quantify every type of migration happening in the country in terms of numbers and destinations under a variety of climate change scenarios. However, this link is very simplistic.

Seeking urban focused partners

“We started collaborating with BCAS, the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, which is a very well-known and influential NGO in Bangladesh focusing on environmental policy. We are also working with the Flood Hazards Research Centre-Bangladesh who are very strong academically, affiliated with the Middlesex University in the UK. All partners are strong in their knowledge of water and environment, but have not historically focused much on urban development. Therefore, the project team visited Dhaka last December to connect with more urban focused partners and stakeholders, like the Center for Urban Studies, and the NDBUS, a grassroots movement of slum dwellers. In the Netherlands we work with the Disaster Studies Center at Wageningen University, Deltares, and University of Applied Sciences in Zeeland (their Delta Academy) as well”.

Comparing two Delta areas

“We decided to compare two Deltas, because although the countries are very different in terms of the demographics and time-scale of the human-water interactions, both countries are involved in long-term climate change-induced system planning in dynamic deltas. In the Netherlands we are looking at demographics in delta planning in the South-West. This is a post-urban context, so it’s interesting to see how an aging population in a demographically declining area influences delta planning and resilience. Also, planners in Bangladesh and The Netherlands can learn from each other. Deltas in the Netherlands have been very infrastructure focused, whereas in Bangladesh hard infrastructure is less dominant in terms of resilience planning, social resilience plays a much stronger role - how people work together to plan and cope post-disaster. So we work with two different approaches to learn from each other in which we focus on what the Netherlands can learn from Bangladesh in terms of social resilience. Our Dutch partners are very interested in that”.

Conceptual model for understanding flows of water and people

“The conceptual model we are using has been introduced by Giuliano Di Baldassarre, along with the broader community of hydrologists developing a sub-field of socio-hydrology. What he articulates is very familiar for a social scientist, since we have long understood people and the environment cannot be seen as separate from each other (eg. social-natures, or the hydro-social). Hydrologists however, have typically treated them as completely separate entities. Hydrological systems are either influenced by society or they influence society. However, more and more, for example the Panta-Rei concept of the IAHS - it is recognized that the interaction is two way and changes over time. In practice, this means we should recognize that water related disaster risk itself, is dynamic”.

Risk is a dymanic concept

“You can't just identify a risk and quantify it, build an infrastructure and the risk is eliminated. It doesn’t work that way. When you reduce the risks in one place, you increase it at some different place, in a different time. So you have to think temporally, but also spatially. For example, when there is a flood risk, you may build a levy. You reduce the risk in this location, but perhaps increase it along another point, or in the future. Due to poor management infrastructures may get degraded, so people think they are safe, but they’re not. Decreasing risk may also lead to a lot of development in the flood plain, which will increase exposure to risk should a disaster event happen. 

“With the conceptual model, we think through the implications of flood management strategies. What does this linkage between floods and society actually mean in terms of vulnerability, who exactly is at risk, when, and where?

“We are supported by two PhD fellows, Wajid Hasan Shah connected to Wageningen University and Ferdous Ruknul to IHE Delft. A lot of the research of the project will be derived from their PhD studies, they are both from Bangladesh but have different disciplinary approaches, combining natural science with social science. Ferdous also did his MSc studies with us and stayed to do his PhD”. 

Social sciences mix

“This project is highly interdisciplinary in the social sciences, which is a bit funny and different both for IHE Delft and the WOTRO Urbanizing Deltas projects. We have anthropologists, political scientists, people trained in public administration and policy and human geographers involved. In terms of the natural scientists we work with civil engineers and hydrologists. The majority of projects under the Urbanizing Deltas of the World call are led by natural scientists. We are also one of the two projects in the call who are focusing on urban processes. Other projects are looking at the delta, which includes urban areas, but not specifically focusing on urbanization itself. I am proud to be part of team which is able to complement this with a social science focus”.