Turning the tide? : The role of participation and learning in strengthening Tidal River Management in the Bangladesh Delta

Mutahara, Mahmuda


This thesis analyses the role of participation and learning in enabling more sustainable land and water management processes in the southwest coastal delta of Bangladesh. A large portion of this coastal delta is frequently flooded, in part due to the waterlogging and drainage congestion caused by large-scale structural engineering (e.g. the creation of embankments and polders). To relieve drainage congestion and restore rivers and conserve tidal nature in this area, the Tidal River Management (TRM) approach has become the formally accepted strategy of Bangladesh’s public-sector water management. Local communities had earlier established the TRM process, which has its roots in indigenous knowledge, without the support of government authorities, but in 2001 it was approved formally as a novel re-interpretation of the polder concept. This thesis aims to explore whether this new shift in emphasis towards a centring of learning and participation for developing stakeholders’ capacity to flood risk reduction in Bangladesh delta. It focusses on innovative ‘delta triangular’ (Δ) relationships using a socio-eco-technical systems approach, social learning orientation, conflict and co-operation dynamics and multi-stakeholder process for exploring TRM as a modality of adaptive delta management.

The people of the southwest part of Bangladesh delta have adapted to the forces of nature (storm surges-salinity-flooding) for generations. They have traditional wisdom and some practical knowledge to face the hazards. It would stand to reason that the community people have the right to take part in the delta management system in this area. However, effective participation and sustainable stakeholder co-ordination is still challenging in the existing management approach which is theoretically introduced as multi-stakeholder process, but is not functional in practice.

Within this thesis, the General Introduction (Chapter 1) is concerned with defining the aim of the overall thesis as it intends to contribute to an understanding of how learning and change processes have developed (or, as the case may be, failed to develop) in adapting a delta management system and how multi-stakeholder approaches are utilized. The overall strategy includes documentary research, local surveys, multi-stakeholder focus groups both with subgroups and all aforementioned communities to enable social learning, dialogue and co-ordination. A historical analysis is made of the origins of TRM and the continuing struggles local stakeholders face with government agencies concerning this innovation.

Chapter 2 explores the transitions of delta management in Bangladesh, following the history of the waterlogging hazard in the Southwest and strategies to deal with it. Transformation of the dynamic delta system is also outlined here under a multi-dimensional socio-eco-technical approach that shows bio-physical restoration, socio-economic transformation and socio-institutional adaptation due to TRM implementation in the southwest delta in Bangladesh. Evolution and formalization of Tidal River Management (TRM) has restored the river’s capacity, reduced waterlogging and improved agricultural land in the study area. The developed land reforms made tremendous changes in the production system, introducing large-scale agro-fisheries mixed cultivation in most of the beel (depression) areas. Due to the intensive shrimp aquacultures in saline water, severe environmental degradation and ecological imbalance occurred in this sensitive area. This chapter also discusses community institutionalization, change in conflict and complexities within adaptive delta management.

To improve the understanding of Tidal River Management in the Southwest delta in Bangladesh, Chapter 3 analyzes four cases of TRM from a social learning perspective. Formal and informal TRM cases were investigated following an integrated participatory evaluation based on individual and organizational learning outputs regarding the adaptation of TRM. Individuals and groups of community stakeholders have gained and shared knowledge through their experiences and efforts. Although government agencies and other involved organizations leave some space for experimenting and monitoring, they rarely practice knowledge sharing and exchange with others due to their entanglement in a complex bureaucratic system. Social learning processes in most cases of TRM that seem to dominate, represent individual and single-loop learning, that is, learning to improve existing practices. Only a few instances of double-loop learning were found. Hence, a rethinking of assumptions and strategies to change the process was rare. It was found hard to ascertain double or triple-loop learning particularly, because of stakeholders’ fixation on pre-determined TRM goals, leaving little room for deeper reflection.

Chapter 4 analyses the conflicts and cooperation in a local (and regional) delta management system with planning and practicing Tidal River Management (TRM) by applying a modified Transboundary Water Interaction Nexus model which provides a clearer understanding of the conflict and co-operation dynamic in local water governance. Applying the model, revealed that the recently the conflict continuum has become more “powerized” and “violized” than before while co-operation has declined significantly. This research indeed found conflict and cooperation to coexist, with a predominance of conflict, and recommends incorporation of multiple-scales of analysis of conflict and cooperation (i.e. political, local/regional and policy scale) in this complex delta management system.

Since Chapter 3 showed that social learning only took place sporadically in formal and informal TRM cases, Chapter 5 looked at the presence of social learning in stakeholder participation in management transitions and at the levers and obstacles that emerge. Using a participatory evaluation methodology, problems and prospects of effective stakeholder participation in the delta management focusing on Tidal River Management in Bangladesh were investigated. The result shows that multi-stakeholder partnerships have rarely functioned in government-implemented delta management projects. In regional water governance, trust and commitment is even declining in the social network due to a gap in learning integration. It appears that a generative learning partnership needs to exist both horizontally and vertically, and needs to be more equitable to enable more effective participation, successful social learning and, ultimately, sustainable delta management.

Chapter 6 delineates and integrates main findings, reflections and recommendations. The thesis, as a multi-purposive learning process, led to a clearer understanding of the complexities of implementing and supporting multi-stakeholder networks and communities, and of creating societal impact in the context of TRM adaptation. The challenges in this delta management are connected as much to or even more to institutional, social and political aspects than to the physical domains. The final chapters of the thesis focus on some of the cross-cutting issues that are emerging and on some of the difficulties encountered during the research. The major restrictions this research reveals are the gaps in actions and interactions between communities, authorities and other development agencies, but also the limitations of learning between individuals’ and organizations. This chapter recommends to integrate social learning in multi-stakeholder partnerships within the delta management system as a way to facilitate multi-actor participation and to improve the effectiveness of delta water management practices.