News / 4 July 2019

Bangladesh: Involving communities for free rivers

Tidal rivers in the southwest coastal area of Bangladesh have been dying since flood plains were replaced by Dutch-style polders in the 70s. Rivers are silted up, and during monsoon season water gets trapped within embankments. Every year, this situation of waterlogging inflicts adverse consequences particularly on women, as they take care of the household in waterlogged conditions in the absence of men who travel to the city in search of temporary work. NGO Uttaran is advocating for a change in policy and practice.

"People in southwest Bangladesh don't want to leave, but they are because of severe waterlogging. It is still in our hands to solve it. But if we don't start now, the place might be unliveable within 15 years." – Jahin Shams Sakkhar, Uttaran


A man-made problem

The yearly phenomenon of waterlogging can be attributed to the archetypical Dutch polders constructed in the 70s. Initially, the polders provided protection from floods and increased the agricultural yield. But many tidal rivers soon clogged up due to the high amounts of sediments that were brought in with each tide and settled on the riverbed instead of the floodplains. This resulted in a substantial raise of upstream river beds beyond the land level of the polders. Without sufficient (functional) water pumps, water within the polders is now trapped within the embankments for long periods of time. As a consequence, large areas are waterlogged for several months during monsoon season.

An ingenious and indigenous solution

Uttaran advocates for the ecological restoration of tidal rivers using Tidal River Management (TRM). This nature-based approach is inspired by indigenous practices: local communities used to flood the plains in a controlled way, resulting in a new layer of fertile soil and enhancing the river basin's drainage capacity. In their advocacy for TRM, Uttaran supports local communities as rightful and knowledgeable actors in the management of tidal river basin.

In 2018, the Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP2100) was adopted by Parliament. Despite its limited participatory process, it does recognise TRM as a solution to waterlogging and as an effective adaptation measure for climate change. Undoubtedly, this can be attributed to continuous advocacy led by Uttaran, together with Paani (Water) Committees, civil society actors, and local political leaders.

A 'window of opportunity'

The mention of TRM in the BDP can be considered a 'window of opportunity' to meaningfully discuss possibilities to tackle waterlogging. Both ENDS supports Uttaran to play a crucial role in ensuring that the implementation of the BDP builds on the existing, self-motivated local action of communities. Negotiations about the implementation of TRM should now carefully be facilitated at appropriate levels. These processes of dialogue and negotiations should ensure an equitable share for the active and meaningful participation of particularly women, landless people, and other typically marginalised groups within society. The role of Uttaran, as a non-partisan civil society actor, is indispensable in ensuring that these processes are inclusive, and that the eventual decision results in an equitable share of benefits.

Both ENDS and Uttaran advocate for a holistic and inclusive approach to Tidal River Management. This approach should improve the living conditions of the approximately 20 million inhabitants in the region, and contribute to a healthy tidal river basin in which biodiversity thrives.

"Uttaran has promoted indigenous knowledge and successfully managed to ensure local knowledge is taken seriously by the national government. We believe Both ENDS does the same; they bring forward the ideas of local grassroots organizations and present them in front of a global audience." – Jahin Shams Sakkhar, Uttaran

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