Bringing in the floods : a comparative study on controlled flooding in the Dutch, Bangladesh and Vietnamese deltas

Staveren, Martijn F. van


This thesis investigates contested initiatives to restore controlled flooding in the deltas of the Dutch, Bangladesh and Vietnamese (Mekong) deltas. Restoring controlled flooding is a seemingly contradictory measure in densely populated delta areas, where approaches based on full flood prevention has been typically dominant for decades. This has instigated the question how the emergence of restored controlled flooding initiatives can be explained. Related, this study reflects on how controlled flooding could contribute to long-term flood risk management and sustainable development in deltas, which are simultaneously attractive and vulnerable places for humans to live in. In order to answer this question, a case study approach has been used to investigate social, environmental and technological factors that have shaped controlled flooding initiatives. Cases have been identified that materialized under different conditions: from very dynamic delta environments to relatively stable ones, and from interventions driven by “top-down” policies to “bottom-up” action to modify or remove embankments. This thesis has an article-based structure, which means that individual chapters (2-5) have been designed for publication with peer reviewed academic journals. Chapter 1 provides the general background information, problem definition, and objectives. Chapter 6 ties together the findings of the individual case study chapters and presents the conclusions.

Chapter 2 conceptualizes deltas as interacting social-ecological-technological systems. It argues that a better understanding of how hydraulic infrastructure influences social processes and environmental dynamics in deltas is critical to understand how deltas evolve over time. By means of the delta trajectories concept, the chapter presents a way to understand this interaction. It also presents a way to understand the sustainability of a delta trajectory, and discusses how new flood management concepts might contribute to “realigning” the development trajectory towards more sustainable system states.

In Chapter 3, the first controlled flooding case is investigated. The Noordwaard is an agricultural polder, located at the junction of tides and riverine discharge in the Netherlands. As part of the Room for the River programme, the northern embankments were lowered which enables the inflow of water during high water levels in the river Merwede. This reduces peak water levels in the river, supports the adjacent freshwater Biesbosch wetland by means of restored water dynamics, but also affects the possibilities for agricultural production. The chapter highlights that a strong coupling can be observed between the domains of water safety and nature development objectives, and that a top-down decision concluded a long stakeholder negotiation processes. From the perspective of “subsiding polder lands,” controlled flooding is not regarded for its strategic importance, as excessive sedimentation would hamper the intended design discharge of the area.

Chapter 4 explores the Tidal River Management concept. In the coastal zone of Bangladesh, community-enforced embankment breaches have opened up some of the polders or low-lying areas called “beels,” and exposed them to tidal influence again. Besides stimulating agricultural production and providing safer places to live in, the extensive network of polder embankments also caused increased sedimentation in the region’s rivers, and water logging in enclosed areas due to insufficient drainage possibilities. The chapter highlights that policy debates in Bangladesh have revolved around adopting “open” or “closed” approaches, where TRM represents a hybrid form. The case showed that TRM involves water management and sediment management, and that it represented a “social opening up” for local communities and NGOs to get involved with water projects and embankment removal.

Plans to restore seasonal flooding in the Mekong delta are center stage in Chapter 5. The Mekong delta system is very dynamic and dealing with the delta’s water resources, in connection with intensive rice production, have been heavily debated by Vietnamese and international policy makers. This chapter investigates a number of older and more recent long-term development plans for the Mekong delta. This analysis highlights how ideas about controlled flooding and flood control have gradually evolved over time. The most recent delta management plan suggests to restore seasonal flooding in some parts of the delta, as a way to safeguard downstream urban areas from peak flows, and as a way to improve the conditions for agricultural production.

Chapter 6 summarizes the findings of the case study chapters one by one, and concisely answers the research questions. It highlights key similarities and differences when it comes to social, environmental and technological dimensions, and discusses these findings with the literature on flood risk management policy, complex adaptive systems research, and delta studies. The findings demonstrate that environmental dynamics have been critical to emphasize the potential of restoring controlled flooding, but that social and technological factors have been important enablers or constrainers for controlled flooding initiatives to take shape. In itself, controlled flooding reconciles ecosystem-based ideas about flood management with more mainstream policies based on flood control. For this reason controlled flooding can be seen as a “niche-development” with limited influence on how flood management policies, and environmental delta systems, evolve. At the same time, controlled flooding has been acknowledged for its strategic opportunities, for example when it comes to diverting peak water discharges, land heightening by means of capturing suspended sediment, and by providing nutrient for agricultural. This offers opportunities for further thinking about and conceptual development of controlled flooding.