News / 15 november 2023

Strengthening social movements for inclusive water governance in Bangladesh

For generations, the people of Bangladesh’ flood-prone deltas have shaped their natural environment to support agricultural production. They used temporary embankments to keep tidal waters out of the floodplains for most of the year and let the rivers flow freely during monsoon season, allowing the sediment to settle on the floodplains as an important part of the delta formation process.

In the 1960s, permanent dikes were constructed along the country’s entire coast, disrupting the tidal ecosystem. The riverbed of many rivers completely silted up, while the land inside the polders gradually sunk below the riverbeds due to a lack of sedimentation. As a result, monsoon (rain) water became trapped within the polders, leading to severe waterlogging affecting the lives and livelihoods of over 2 million people throughout the southwest coastal zone during the last decades.

Massive grassroots resistance movements sprung up to demand change. One group even broke open a dike, resulting in a lawsuit for destroying government property. Local organisation and Both ENDS’ partner Uttaran stepped in to support the people’s quest for ecosystem restoration and social justice. Drawing from Uttaran’s experiences, programme development specialist Zahid Shashoto provides insights into the vital role NGOs can play in strengthening social movements.

Empowering people through institution building

The people demanded a return to indigenous tidal river management (TRM), but destroying the dikes themselves only created additional problems, including legal charges and increased distrust and miscommunication between formal water governance actors and past caretakers from the communities. Uttaran’s approach focuses on empowering people by strengthening their institutions. The NGO supports informal bottom-up movements to organise themselves into paani (water) committees and outline their demands in clear action plans. This levels the playing field and places the communities in a stronger position to negotiate their demands with the government. “We don’t want to act as a bridge between the community and the government”, Zahid emphasises. “There was something that people needed, that people were fighting for, and we started supporting them.”

Knowledge is key

According to Zahid, one of the most impactful roles of Uttaran and partner NGOs has been to exchange knowledge and information with the paani committees. Uttaran regularly organises meetings to inform communities about government policies and plans, while partner organisation CEGIS conducts environmental impact assessments to help people understand the potential impact of proposed water management interventions. Reports are summarised and translated into Bangla to make the information understandable and accessible, enabling community members to make informed decisions about their water resources. At the same time, the paani committees share knowledge and information obtained from their communities with Uttaran and CEGIS, for example problems related to the maintenance of infrastructure and the impacts of floods. 

Inclusive and participatory decision-making

Waterlogging can be resolved by selectively opening dikes and closing them again after several years when natural sedimentation has raised the land level inside the polder and improved the navigability of the river – a technique similar to the Dutch “wisselpolders” which have been gaining attention in recent years. However, it is crucial to take into account the needs of local residents. Adequate compensation and alternative livelihood options should be provided to prevent conflicts and ensure social justice. Uttaran strengthens the capacities of paani committees to facilitate inclusive and participatory processes to understand local realities and engage community members in designing socially acceptable solutions. Paani committee members travel to villages along their river catchment to organise a mix of public gatherings and private meetings for specific socio-economic groups, such as women or youth. The process enables paani committees to formulate People’s Plans of Action that address community needs and ensure no group is left behind.

Vertical structures for effective advocacy

Finally, Zahid emphasises the importance of building vertical structures. Uttaran has helped create a network of paani committees at different levels, from small committees at the village level, larger committees at the wetland and river basin levels, to a central paani committee at the regional level. The expansive network has strengthened the communities’ collective voice in advocating for their demands at higher levels of government.

Through the tireless efforts of the paani committees, Uttaran and partner organisations, waterlogging has been resolved in the Kapotakkho river basin – a testament to the power of community-driven change. This case demonstrates the potential for civil society organisations to strengthen social movements and shape a more sustainable, equitable and democratic water governance model for Bangladesh and beyond.

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