Managing the Bangladesh Delta needs a different approach

June 5, 2015

Lia Carol Sieghart and David Rogers

Deltas are fragile, but economically vital places. They feed and support large populations and provide invaluable ecosystem services. More than 156 million people depend on the Bangladesh Delta for their lives and livelihoods. Being delta countries, Bangladesh and the Netherlands share a common cause to manage these complex environments. They are, therefore, natural partners in the exchange of knowledge. The Netherlands are supporting Bangladesh in the preparation of the ‘Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP 2100)’.

The BDP 2100 aims is to realize a sustainable delta vision, long term strategy and plan, agreed with all stakeholders, for an optimum level of water safety and food security as well as economic growth and a framework for its implementation. The long term (50 to 100 year), integrated and holistic plan would ensure safe living and sound economic development in the delta, taking account of challenges posed by climate change.

The World Bank and the IFC with the 2030 Water Resources Group has been invited by the Government of Bangladesh for support in the preparation and importantly the subsequent implementation of the BDP 2100 in recognition of the Bank’s expertise in working in river delta countries and in Bangladesh in several sectors of direct relevance.

The World Bank recognizes the importance of creating long-term scenarios for the Delta, which allow a more holistic adaptive approach to delta management. This approach—referred to as adaptive delta management (ADM)—combines adaption and flexibility to empower robust decisions based on a better understanding of future scenarios. By making the approach flexible, the solutions are more likely to be resilient and limit over- or under- investment. This is particularly important if the impact of climate change is to be fully integrated into managing the Bangladesh Delta.  

ADM would help to ensure that short term investments address the long-term challenges facing the Bangladesh Delta. By developing a long-term vision that shapes short-term no-regrets actions. Investments in major infrastructure, for example, would consider not only the short term benefit of the investment, but also anticipate and avoid possible adverse longer-term consequences. The approach has three phases: the identification of current and future challenges based on future scenarios; the development of options to reduce vulnerability for current threats and future uncertainties; and the integration of adaptation options into viable, implementable management strategies.

The ADM approach also looks for opportunities to combine different investment agendas with the aim of making actions easier and cheaper while yielding more societal value. It would take account of all aspects of infrastructure systems and infrastructure services (e.g., agriculture and aquaculture, fisheries, forestry, transportation, water and sanitation, energy, industry, ecosystems as well as physical infrastructure in each of these sectors), which impact lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of the delta. It would also be climate-smart to cope with the consequences of climate change. Since resilience in one sector is highly dependent on resilience in another, attention is needed to ensure that vulnerabilities in one sector do not compromise another. Moreover, interdependencies among the sectors are multi-dimensional and a holistic approach is required to reduce people’s exposure to both anthropogenic and climate-induced hazards.

This, all-inclusive approach to delta management, would protect, restore and enhance the delta ecosystem and its services. A resilient, functioning estuary and surrounding terrestrial landscape is needed, which is capable of supporting viable populations and migratory species with diverse and biologically appropriate habitats, functional corridors, and ecosystem processes. To achieve this, ADM would include a mix of infrastructural and policy oriented measures. As one of the largest most densely populated deltas in the world, the Bangladesh delta has already experienced numerous interventions of water management including upstream water withdrawal, reduction of floodplain and pollution. All these anthropogenic interventions, coupled with natural changes, have restricted the delta’s capacity to provide needed ecosystem services.

As a first step in this process, by building on a well-developed portfolio, the World Bank and the IFC with the 2030 Water Resources Group in consultation with the colleagues from the Netherlands under the guidance of the Planning Commission is developing a Roadmap to guide subsequent investment in the Bangladesh Delta. The Roadmap will provide the general steps to be taken to assess quantitatively the infrastructure in the Bangladesh Delta comprising systems, sites and networks necessary for the delivery of essential services. More particular and detailed guidance will be provided for a limited set of those sectors that are highly interdependent and relevant to the BDP 2100 process, and the World Bank and IFC with 2030 WRG investment pipeline. This requires a tool to measure each individual project against the risks of high impact, low probability hazards. The severity of these hazards is determined largely by climate change. These threats will be highlighted in another piece in this series of managing the Bangladesh Delta.