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Home > Basin > Ganges > The Water Management Puzzle of Coastal Bangladesh

This story originally appeared in Aditi Mukherji’s blog, Waterscapes

 I was in coastal Bangladesh for the last few days with a group of researchers and practitioners who care deeply about water management issues in the region. I happen to be one of them. My research looks into issues of community participation in water management.

But why is water management even an issue? With an annual rainfall of 1500 to 3000 mm, Bangladesh is one of the most water abundant countries in the world. My first thoughts were, surely with such high rainfall, there can’t be many water related problems in Bangladesh? And even if there are, it should be fairly easy to solve them. Unfortunately, wrong on both counts!

High rainfall notwithstanding, our study area in coastal Bangladesh faces several water challenges. For one, much of coastal Bangladesh is a part of an active delta and highly influenced by tidal surges and salinity intrusion. So, in non-rainy months, availability of fresh water is scarce and management of brackish waters is a critical issue. Second, relatively flat terrain, clayey soils and high rainfall leads to severe water logging, inundation and siltation of internal drainage channels. These are also the most densely populated and poverty stricken parts of the world and that’s what makes water management challenges here even more critical.

Now, what exactly is my research about? Since the 1960s, the Government of Bangladesh has constructed a series of Dutch-style polders, or embankments in coastal areas. The initial function of polders was to protect coastal communities from natural calamities and tidal surges, but now these polders also support a burgeoning population engaged in farming and aquaculture activities.

Water is a critical input for both. This area, by virtue of its fertile land, suitable climate and abundant water resources has a huge potential for agricultural production.

However, weak infrastructure, lack of maintenance of this infrastructure by government agencies and frequent conflicts among competing users means that this potential is far from met. This research is funded by the CPWF and is one of five projects comprising the Ganges Basin Development Challenge.

Many believe that the solution lies in engaging local communities in operation and maintenance of polder infrastructure. After all, who can better understand the needs of the communities if not the community members themselves?

Fair enough. And this is what I am trying to investigate: does involving communities in polder management improve water management within the polders and reduce conflicts leading to better outcomes in terms of crop production and productivity? By polder management, I mean, timely opening and closing of sluice gates (to let in water from outside and drain out water from inside) and maintenance of polder infrastructure such as internal canals and gates.

What are our findings so far? First, we find that even in polders where there are formal water management organizations (WMOs) set up by Bangladesh Water Development Board or Local Government Engineering Department, it is the informal rules and regulations that determine day-to-day operations. The task of opening and closing the gates is often entrusted to those living nearest the gate and the timing is determined by interests of the wealthier interest groups. In most case, they happen to be shrimp farmers. Shrimp farming needs brackish water and brackish water kills paddy. Small and marginal farmers cultivate paddy.

Equity implications are clear – in polders where shrimp cultivation is profitable, interests of paddy farmers are entirely overlooked and this does not change even when formal WMOs are set up for the express purpose of equitable and efficient water distribution for all water users in a polder.

Second, the WMOs are also entrusted with the task of regular maintenance of infrastructure – such as minor repairs of gates, removal of silt in the canals and cutting of grass on the embankment. Periodic and major repair is the responsibility of the government.

We found that WMOs are seldom able to bring together the communities to do this ‘routine’ maintenance. Reasons are not hard to find: for one, silting, even minimal amount of silting is expensive and far beyond the capacity of the farmers. Second, and even more importantly, they do not see any value in ‘regular’ maintenance because even without it, they can meet their day-to-day agricultural water needs through ‘informal’ channels such as irregular opening or closing of gates or through lifting water directly from the canals using a low lift pump.

When farmers do not maintain infrastructure, it obviously deteriorates and what was a ‘minor’ repair becomes a ‘major’ rehabilitation. The mandate for periodic and major repairs lies with the government. Farmers’ decisions not to invest in maintenance is therefore guided by two quite rational arguments: one, not maintaining a canal or a gate does not directly impinge on their agricultural activities in the short run; and second, in the long run when it starts affecting them, the government or a donor most likely steps in and rehabilitates the entire system. The cycle of “build-neglect-rebuild” continues ad nauseum.

WMOs were created to tackle this problem of ‘deferred-maintenance’; but our field data shows that this has not been happening. At the heart of this is misalignment of incentives among farmers, government agencies and the donors. Farmers avoid doing short term maintenance, government agencies too don’t invest – both wait for donor funds for major rehabilitation. Donors, as lenders, like disbursing more money than less – regular repair and maintenance is cheap, major rehabilitation is not.

What then are the implications? I can think of at least two: first, we need to seriously revisit some of the assumptions behind participatory water management and understand the issue of perverse incentives better. This will help stem the relentless and perhaps misguided efforts at ‘capacity-building’ of farmers before and during every donor funded project. Second, we need to take cognizance of informal institutions that are already in place and reflect whether or not super-imposing another layer of formal governance structure – often with the sole aim of ticking a box of things to do – is an idea worth spending time and money on.

Aditi Mukherji is a senior research at the International Water Management Institute, and project leader of CPWF’s Ganges 3 project. Read more of Aditi’s reflections on the Ganges River basin on her blog, ‘Waterscapes‘.