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Home > Basin > Ganges > Keeping Their Feet Dry: Upholding Water Infrastructure in Bangladesh

This story was originally published on the International Water Management Institute’s website.

A new study conducted under the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) and presented at Stockholm World Water Week this week suggests that focusing on “fairness” won’t get the job done when it comes to managing community water resources.

The coastal zone of Bangladesh is home to 38 million people. But this densely packed mosaic of villages, creeks and mudflats is highly vulnerable to flooding. In the 1960s and 1970s the Government of Bangladesh constructed coastal embankments to protect communities from tidal surges. These bunds also helped to protect farmland and create new areas for agriculture.

But over the years this network has decayed. Rather than take a top down approach, the government decided that local communities should be organized into water management organizations (WMOs) and contribute financially towards ‘minor’ maintenance of water infrastructure. But the results have been decidedly mixed.

Water infrastructure in Bangladesh

Photo credit: CPWF

Now a new study has revealed the scale of the problem, and offers some insights into how community management could be made to work.

Let the games begin

As part of the CPWF’s work on governance, scientists led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) wanted to understand the factors that influence individuals and communities to contribute voluntarily to dyke and ditch maintenance. The results are being presented this week at the workshop Cooperation for Sustainable Benefits and Financing of Water Programmes at Stockholm World Water Week.

The researchers designed an experimental “public good” game. The idea was to get communities thinking about what affected the whole community and particularly how working together could benefit all water users.

The game was played in 14 coastal communities in Bangladesh. The majority of the villages were part of the polder systems managed by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) in cooperation with the WMOs. These polders are usually very large comprising of 20 or more villages and measuring up to 5000 hectares – about the size of middle sized town. However five out of the studied villages belonged to smaller polder systems, so called sub-project which have less than 1000 hectares, and are managed jointly by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and WMOs.

“We explained the rules to the player by reading out a text in Bangla emphasizing the similarities between the game and the reality through examples”, explains IWMI researcher Marie-Charlotte Buisson. “Players were instructed not to talk among each other during the rounds. We also collected demographic, socio-economic and perception related data from each player at the end of the game. For every round each player received 20 tokens and had to decide how much he or she will contribute to a common maintenance fund. We had one control round where the decision was made in secret and four rounds where information on individual contribution to the common fund was made public.”

Size does matter

The games revealed that people were far more likely to contribute to maintenance if everyone in the group was more or less equal in status and shared relatively equal needs for water management. This means that the most effective way to organize community maintenance may be to limit WMOs to user groups, such as farmers and fishermen who make productive use of water and may have higher stake in proper operation and maintenance of water systems.

Some may find this conclusion unsettling. The principle of broad stakeholder participation, where everyone has an equal voice in decision making, has been promoted by many policy makers and NGOs as a means of ensuring that no-one in the community gets marginalized. Evidence is emerging, however, that communally run systems work best when those with most interest in upkeep of a resource have a greater say in making decisions about that resource.

The research team also concluded that proportional sharing of benefits also leads to better contributions to a common fund. In other words, systems where those who put in the most, get the most out are far more durable than more equitable approaches.

The researchers also found that players in sub-projects are likely to contribute more. This could be because they are smaller in size and structural simpler. Past experience of pooling together resources probably helps in carrying out ‘minor’ but crucial maintenance work and may have encouraged players to contribute more readily.

“Our findings indicate that there are clear benefits in the way communities are mobilized in sub-projects”, says Buisson. “But how can this process be replicated given that polders have different institutional mechanisms? One idea we have is to mimic sub-polder like conditions, such as small units, coherent users groups, within large polders through the creation of smaller hydrological units.”

Explore the interactive poster that describes the game and its findings.

About the author:

Anna Deinhard is a Communications Fellow at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). She has an MSc in Environmental Sciences from Linkoping University, Sweden, specialized in water and development.