Blog / 2 February 2019

“Poldering” to face climate change

Last week Mark Rutte met with Ban Ki Moon, Bill Gates and World Bank Director Kristalina Georgieva in Davos. They are the chairpersons of the Global Commission on Adaptation, which was also founded by the Netherlands. This is an important organisation because, as Rutte wrote on Twitter, "climate change is the biggest challenge of this century," and as an international community we should "pay attention to the problems of the countries that are being threatened by climate change."

One of those problems is the increase in floods. In the Netherlands we have learned how to deal with a water surplus throughout the years. For example, after years of damming the rivers and keeping out sea water, we have paved the way for 'Room for the River'. Moreover, everyone in the Netherlands has always been involved in water management to some degree: it is not without reason that our water authorities are over 750 years old and among the oldest democratically chosen authorities in the Netherlands, and, according to some, in the entire world.

We are more than happy to share our knowledge of water management with other countries. After heavy floods in Bangladesh in the 1950s, the flood plains of the coastal area were converted into 139 polders with the help of Dutch expertise, 39 of which are located in the southwest. These polders kept the water outside of the dikes to protect the land from future floods. Unfortunately, the polders only helped for a short time. The large amounts of sediment (mud) that play an important role in the Bengali water system hadn't sufficiently been taken into account in the design of the polders. As a result, these sediments clogged the pumping stations and accumulated on the river bed. This led to a raise of the river bed beyond the land level of the polders.

This could happen because the Dutch applied the technique of empoldering (creating polders), while they did not introduce the process of 'polderen' (the Dutch way of first talking to all stakeholders before making decisions) in Bangladesh. The inhabitants of the southwestern coastal area were not sufficiently involved in the design and implementation of the plan. Those local communities used to flood the plains in a controlled way with muddy flood water. This resulted in a new layer of fertile soil as well as a rise in land levels. Another beneficial side effect was that the sediment didn't accumulate in the rivers, so that the water could flow back into the ocean without any problems. Civil society organisations such as Uttaran have incorporated this local knowledge into a method that is now known as 'Tidal River Management'.

For the low-lying Bangladesh, today's climate adaptation is extremely urgent since the sea level is rising and weather conditions are becoming more and more extreme. Last year, the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP2100), which was partly made possible by the Netherlands, was approved. One positive aspect is that this plan has already selected seven of the 39 polders for Tidal River Management. This method is not just a technical solution, but – just like the Dutch polder system - it originates from the local social structures that have always been necessary to manage delta areas such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Consequently, Bangladesh now has a great opportunity to actively involve civil society organisations and inhabitants in the execution of the new Delta Plan and also to restore the old social structures. In this way, they are able to adapt to climate change the most effectively. With this participatory polder model, Bangladesh and the Netherlands can serve as an example of how the Global Commission on Adaptation can act in drafting and executing its plans for climate adaptation.

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