Bangladesh is home to one of the biggest and most densely populated deltas of the world, formed by sediments carried by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna River system. The construction of polders in the 1960s in order to decrease flood risk and salinity intrusion, resulted in high agricultural productivity on the coastal lands for 10-15 years. However since the 1980s, the polders have become a source of major environmental concern due to salinisation, land subsidence, and water logging problems caused by sedimentation in the channel beds. Within this context, the Living Polders research project aims to develop sustainable solutions to these increasing pressures through integrated polder management, based on building with nature principles, working with rather than against the forces of nature (e.g. temporarily opening up polders to benefit from natural sediment accretion to elevate polder surfaces, and deposit fertile nutrients), and taking into account the natural and social dynamics in the area.
Utrecht University has ample experience with studying building with nature techniques based on sediment management (see for example the blog contributions by Floris Keizer on suspended sediment, by Rémon Saaltink on the Marker Wadden project, and the work by Hans Middelkoop and others on the River Care project as well as Jasper Griffioen’s involvement in the Sand Motor project).
As part of the final step for the development of the Living Polders research proposal under the NWO Programme "Urbanizing Deltas of the World", our team of researchers travelled to Bangladesh: Dr Frank van Laerhoven, Dr Jasper Griffioen, Dr Michiel van der Meulen, and Ariane Laporte-Bisquit. The objective of this trip was to consult with various local stakeholders and have a better understanding of the reality on the ground. The next paragraphs describe some of the key highlights of this succesful trip.
Our first meeting was with the local NGO Jagrata Juba Shangha (JJS) led by Mr. ATM Zakir Hossain. JJS is an environmental and social development organisation working since 1985 in this region. We discussed the involvement of JJS as a local partner within this research project in order to share their expert knowledge and provide logistical support.
After our meeting with JJS, we had a stakeholder consultation workshop with a diverse group of 20 participants which included representatives of farmer organisations, government agencies, NGOs, Khulna University, and BUET. Through breakout group activities and plenary discussions, the different stakeholders shared their experiences and knowledge regarding some of the problems with polder management in the area. They expressed their concerns about sedimentation related problems and supported the Living Polders’ approach focused on more integrated sediment and water management. In addition, they also discussed livelihood options that people have in the polders and how these could be improved.
Dr Mallik Anowar from the Department of Environment stated that the local communities “are the real experts who know the actual situation on the ground”. Furthermore, several stakeholders stressed the importance of engaging with local communities living in the polders in order to strengthen community participation in decision-making processes.
Mr Mokbul Hossain Mintu, President of Khulna Press Club, actively participated in the stakeholder consultation workshop. As a result, our workshop received media coverage and an article was published in the Daily Purbanchal, a daily newspaper in Khulna.
- Guy Jones (Team Leader) and Boudewijn Sterk (Innovation Fund Manager) of the Blue Gold Programme financed by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Dhaka, with the goal to reduce the poverty for 150,000 households living in 160,000 ha area of selected coastal polders in Khulna, Patuakhali and Satkhira provinces. The essence of the Blue Gold Program is first to establish and empower community organizations to sustainably manage their water resources and based on the priorities set by these community organisations deliver the services that they require in order to enhance their agricultural produce.
- Md. Sarafat Hossain Khan (Project Coordinator) of the Coastal Embankment Improvement Programme (CEIP) funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), the key government agency with respect to water resource management. The main objectives of CEIP are to a) increase the area protected in selected polders from tidal flooding and frequent storm surges, b) improve agricultural production by reducing saline water intrusion, and c) improve the Government of Bangladesh's capacity to respond promptly and effectively to an emergency.
- Michiel Slotema (Policy Advisor) at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Dhaka involved in water policy and management projects
During our stay in Khulna, not only did we discuss with stakeholders about polder management but we actually went out in the field to see these polders with our own eyes. We observed some of the environmental problems related to polder management such as siltation of canals and land erosion.
We met with Md. Mainuddin, Executive Engineer of the Bagerhat O&M Division of BWDB, responsible for implementing the CEIP project in polder number 35/3. We learned about their interventions to address embankment erosion problems. For example, they are planning to construct new embankments further inland but this will result in the loss of some agricultural lands which will no longer be protected from flooding. In consequence, there is resistance and resentment from local communities as their livelihoods are being threatened by these new construction plans, reflecting some of the social tensions in the area.
During this trip we gained valuable insights into the complex problems faced by communities living within Bangladesh’s coastal polders. We developed a deeper understanding of the high natural and social dynamics in the southwestern region which will help us consolidate our research proposal. It was also a great opportunity to start establishing partnerships with local stakeholders and project managers towards further collaboration. Last but not least, this was a wonderful life experience as we discovered Bangladesh's lush green landscapes, mighty meandering rivers, lovely people, delicious food, rich cultural heritage and bustling cities.
Blog entry by Ariane Laporte-Bisquit - Junior Researcher