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Managing Water Resources and Disaster Risk in Bangladesh

Submitted by Nitya Jacob 11th July 2022 10:28

Bangladesh has the world's largest delta

A brief history of managing water-related risks in the world's largest delta

The GBM Delta, formed by three major rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra (also known as the Jamuna), and Meghna—is home to nearly 200 million people, with one of the world’s highest population densities. Its flood plains cover two-thirds of Bangladesh (about 100,000 square kilometers), as well as parts of West Bengal and Assam, in India.

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to climate-change impacts, including higher precipitation during tropical cyclones, river and tidal flooding, more intense storm surges as sea levels rise, and water  deficits during the dry season linked to glacial retreat in the Himalayas. The region has a history of  water-related natural disasters, which tend to hit the poor the hardest. Only after three major floods in the mid-1950s did a formal institutional structure and planning process for water management  emerge, with a 20-year master plan in 1964 marking the beginning of water-sector planning in what is now Bangladesh. The plan was based on a strategy for flood control, drainage and irrigation improvement to increase agricultural production.

The impact of Cyclone Bhola in November 1970 led to substantial improvements in disaster response  planning and preparedness. Bangladesh became independent in 1971 and a World Bank member country in 1972. From the outset, it invested in a wide range of actions to reduce disaster risks and build resilience. The country’s success is often cited in arguments for greater investment in disaster risk management (DRM). In 2001, the government prepared a National Water Management Plan,  coordinating the work of national and regional agencies, local governments, and other stakeholders.

Bangladesh was one of the first countries to focus on climate change, preparing a National Adaptation Programme of Action in 2005. Around 2012, the government started developing a comprehensive  development plan for the delta region that would integrate water resources management (WRM), DRM and economic growth—the BDP 2100, which was launched in 2018. Bangladesh reinforced its international leadership role in climate adaptation in 2020 by taking up the presidency of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and inaugurating the first South-Asian regional office of the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) in Dhaka. 

Alongside climate change, drivers of change in the delta include economic development (irrigation, industry, fisheries, navigation, and road transport); technological development (especially in agriculture, civil/hydraulic engineering, ICT, and energy); upstream activities (especially the construction of dams and barrages, and water withdrawals or diversions by upstream countries); demographic trends (population growth, urbanization, and migration); and land subsidence (both natural and human-induced).

Together these factors are creating growing pressures—sea-level rise, seasonal flooding and waterlogging, droughts, river and coastal erosion, landslides, sedimentation, soil and water salinization, deteriorating surface-water quality, groundwater stress and pollution, environmental degradation, reduced water supply and sanitation services , and transboundary water management—affecting the country’s natural resources directly and its use of land, water and vital infrastructure and systems indirectly.

Development through a comprehensive, adaptive WRM approach

The government’s mainstreaming of coastal development, WRM, DRM, and climate-change adaptation in its development strategies culminated with the adoption of an integrated, long-term development strategy, anchored in the development of its delta—the BDP 2100. World Bank-supported initiatives on coastal and urban climate resilience helped shape the principles underlying the BDP 2100, and the bank supported the government by bringing together development partners to coordinate activities and financial assistance; identifying and disseminating best practices; and strengthening the government’s capacity for planning, implementation, coordination, and monitoring and evaluation.

Multiple bank operations are ongoing in Bangladesh involving DRM and/or WRM, not necessarily focused on the GBM Delta. Most were designed and are often implemented by multidisciplinary teams representing sectors such as agriculture, water, climate change and disaster risk management, transport, environment, and urban development, and covering aspects from finance and trade to innovation and resilience. The dollar figures added in parentheses represent ongoing financial assistance, though this is not an exhaustive account of World Bank support to Bangladesh in the GBM Delta.

Coastal Embankment Improvement Project, Phase I (US$ 400 million): supports the rehabilitation and upgrading of polders to guard coastal areas against tidal flooding and storm surges, which are expected to worsen due to climate change; and enhancing agricultural production by reducing saline intrusion. The project is also developing a framework for polder design. It involves local communities in planning,implementation, and monitoring. CEIP has helped attenuate the impacts of cyclones and flooding; improve emergency response; increase agricultural productivity and food security; and create employment opportunities. CEIP was conceptualized as a long-term program, including preparatory work for future programming. Phase II is currently under discussion.

Bangladesh Weather and Climate Services Regional Project (US$ 89 million): strengthens the government’s capacity to deliver and improve access to reliable weather, water, and climate information services.

The Multipurpose Disaster Shelter Project (US$ 375 million): aims to reduce vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters across nine coastal districts by constructing 550 new cyclone shelters, improving 450 existing shelters, and constructing and/or rehabilitating climate-resilient access and evacuation roads to connect them. These shelters are multipurpose—they normally serve as schools. In May 2020, during Cyclone Amphan, over two million people were safely evacuated to disaster shelters.

Urban Resilience Project (US$ 173 million): strengthens government agencies’ capacity to respond to emergency events and reduces the vulnerability of new buildings in Dhaka and Sylhet. The project seeks to create an enabling environment for coordinated, locally managed DRM based on effective response, reinforcing existing infrastructure and ensuring resilient construction. The project is part of a larger program on urban resilience, which includes the US$ 116 million Urban Building Safety Project financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Climate Adaptation and Resilience for South Asia Project (US$ 39.5 million): this regional project supports data, analytics and decision-making in the water, transport, agriculture, finance and planning sectors, developing regional standards, guidelines, policies and capacities, and financing innovative and technology solutions for climate adaptation and resilience.

Bangladesh Regional Waterway Transport Project (US$ 234 million): aims to improve inland water transport, which plays a vital role in trade and personal transportation, along the Chittagong-Dhaka-Ashuganj regional corridor.

Bangladesh Water Platform: a technical assistance program that advises the government on policy, coordinates activities on WRM, develops pipeline projects and promotes dialogue on transboundary water collaboration between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal.

Southern Asia Water Initiative: supports various activities to enhance regional co-operation in sustainably managing major Himalayan river systems.

Delta Management Through Integrated WRM and DRM

Bangladesh’s ambitions to reach upper middle-income status and eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 require effective WRM and DRM. The Delta, if properly managed, can be an engine of growth. This realization led to the development of the BDP 2100 by the government, with support from the Netherlands and the World Bank based on a 2015 memorandum of understanding. Approved in September 2018, BDP 2100 aims to sustainably manage water, ecological, environmental, and land resources. While it mainly looks at the delta agenda up to 2050, its vision is defined to 2100 as many of today’s decisions will have implications on that timescale.

BDP 2100 represents a break with the country’s traditional approach to WRM, which is focused on food security, flood protection, and groundwater management. It takes a comprehensive, integrated, multisectoral, adaptive, and sustainable approach to water and land management. The General Economics Division of the Bangladesh Planning Commission is responsible for coordination and monitoring for BDP 2100 implementation and updating.

BDP 2100’s investment plan (BDP/IP) comprises a portfolio of projects, infrastructure investments and institutional reforms, prepared by the government with World Bank support. The investments will be informed by short-term strategies based on an adaptive delta management (ADM) approach. Its purpose is to ensure that the right investments are made at the right time—neither too early nor too late—by identifying tipping points that signal the need for a change in approach, such as building new embankments rather than improving existing ones. An ADM approach favors smaller interventions, phased over time, to large, irreversible one-off projects. It prioritizes ‘no-regret’ investments and avoids projects that do not stand up under realistic climate scenarios. It considers the interactions between projects, land use, and water management. It prefers working in harmony with natural hydrological systems rather than attempting to change them and promotes the efficient use of resources based on cost-benefit analyses. Broad participation, investments in knowledge management, and innovation are key to successful ADM.

The 2030 Water Resources Group is an important initiative in support of BDP 2100’s implementation— a public, private, and civil-society partnership hosted by the World Bank that supports country-level collaboration toward sustainable WRM. It could serve as a model—in terms of set-up and agenda—for promoting stakeholder dialogue and collaboration in other countries

Applying ADM principles means the BDP/IP considers the impacts of projects individually and in combination. Changing circumstances—including climate change, demographic changes, and economic growth—may require adjustments in the design, selection, prioritization, and phasing of projects. The BDP/IP includes financing arrangements and mechanisms. The government’s five-year plans will include funding for specific projects and programs.

BDP 2100 includes national strategies and strategies directed at hotspots—groupings of districts and areas with similar hydrology, facing similar natural hazard and climate-change risks. These strategies were tested for robustness to climate change and built around four pillars (Figure C).


BDB2100 Hotspots

The first two deal with nationwide challenges, the third with strategies specific to one hotspot, and the fourth with multisectoral strategies relevant to more than one hotspot (Figure D). BDP/IP has a planning horizon through to 2030 and has identified 65 infrastructure projects and 15 institutional and knowledge development projects, together worth US$ 38 billion. All infrastructure projects could start within the next eight years, though construction may extend over decades. Similar projects in different hotspots are grouped for the purpose of knowledge gathering, capacity building, and policy reforms. Flood control, riverbank erosion, and river management together account for 35 percent of priority project expenditures: they will lay the basis for growth by reclaiming land, enhancing its use for job creation, revitalizing water transport and increasing resilience to climate change.

Some of the priority projects currently under development by the government, with World Bank support, include:

  1. Jamuna River Economic Corridor Development Program: will create opportunities for economic growth by stabilizing the river’s course along a stretch of 205 kilometers between Sirajganj and the Indian border, making it navigable year-round and enabling road and rail transport to switch to water. The program will use innovative ‘building with nature’ approaches such as top-blocked permeable groins to train the river, risk-based decision support systems to support actuarial analyses for flood insurance, fuel-efficient vessels, and smart aids for navigation.
  2. Dhaka Rivers Ecological Restoration Project: aims to enhance the ecological condition and transport capacity of the rivers and canals around Dhaka, which are compromised by pollution from the textile industry and untreated discharge of human waste into the environment. 
  3. Resilient Infrastructure Building Project (US$ 400 million): using risk assessment tools to prioritize sites, the project will finance shelters and associated community infrastructure, last-mile connectivity, local emergency preparedness and response, and community-based DRM in villages vulnerable to flooding.
  4. Climate Smart Agriculture and Water Management Project (US$ 120 million): will rehabilitate flood control, drainage and irrigation infrastructure, creating an enabling environment for climate-smart agriculture and fisheries.The Bangladesh Water Platform is supporting implementation of the BDP 2100 through analytical studies, a water-sector public expenditure review and a diagnostic report41 identifying the main water challenges and priorities for the next decade. It argues that water requires not only more funding—over the last decade, the government spent 0.6–0.8 percent of GDP on the sector, with plans to increase to 2.5 percent by 2030—but also wiser spending, with more funds earmarked for data collection and operations and maintenance.

Additional sources of financing will be needed to cover the BDP/IP’s overall requirement of around US$ 38 billion through to 2030. The government is working to attract this funding, including from the private sector, by exploring policy reforms such as introducing a comprehensive water risk management framework; letting water accounting guide the distribution of water-sector resources; and adopting cost recovery (based on the ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles) for public services.

Key building blocks of new approach to delta management

Prioritizing investment projects and institutional reforms with the following characteristics

Safety-first approach. Investing in erosion and flood control through riverbank and coastal protection and interagency coordination of water-related policies, including DRM, sets the stage for cost-effective, follow-on investments and crowding in the private sector. Protecting livelihoods in disaster-prone areas also boosts socio-economic development.

Sustainable and climate-resilient nature. Flood and erosion-control activities prioritize nature-based solutions, reflect the participation of multiple stakeholders and sectors, secure funding for projects, and allocate resources to operations and maintenance.

Comprehensive approach to adaptation. Investing in preventing and preparing for climate-related disasters, and strengthening governments through policy reforms and institutional capacity building.

Multisectoral approach. Addressing areas including flood risk management; freshwater; sustainable land use and spatial planning; agriculture, food security, and livelihoods; transboundary WRM; inland water transport; the blue economy; renewable energy; and earthquake risks.

Flexible approach. ADM ensures the flexibility to consider different climate scenarios and exogenous factors when updating the rolling medium-term strategies and national five-year plans.

Inclusive design. The government consults on projects with a wide range of stakeholders as relevant, including polder and riverbank communities, local government institutions, civil society, the media, water and land transport associations, traders and trade bodies, academia and research institutions, and environmental NGOs.

High economic returns. Investments in improving the navigability of rivers, by reducing flood risk and river and coastal erosion, tend to benefit multiple sectors and have high economic returns.

Promoting conjunctive water use in agriculture. Increasing the use of surface water in irrigation helps address groundwater depletion. Gravity-fed irrigation also contributes to greenhouse gas mitigation. The BDP/IP has identified surface-water irrigation projects, but none is planned in the short term. Given the projected increase in demand for water, investment may be needed sooner than anticipated.

Creating jobs and rehabilitating climate migrants. Climate-resilient delta development aims to create employment opportunities in sectors such as fisheries and irrigation, for people who would otherwise be forced to migrate to cities due to climate-change impacts.

Developing an innovative water risk management framework. The government is keen to develop, with World Bank support, a comprehensive, water-related risk management framework in line with BDP 2100. The first step is getting communities to reduce the risks of local floods, groundwater depletion, and coastal erosion through local actions. This requires evaluating tradeoffs: for instance, between strengthening polders—which risks saline waterlogging—and permitting accretion of sediments during monsoons, while increasing agriculture and aquaculture production in the dry months. Risks that cannot be dealt with at the community level are addressed through water adaptation plans at district, division, and national levels. The government transfers some risks to the insurance market, but bears the risk of the highest-impact disasters itself.

Challenges Related to Implementation

BDP/IP infrastructure investments will require years to build. As these investments are interconnected, their full economic benefits will be realized only if implementation momentum is maintained. This will require a sustained, long-term effort: managing the investments; aligning planning, implementation, and financing activities with BDP 2100; improving interagency and intersectoral coordination; and designing adequate financing modalities for public-private partnership projects.

As part of the BDP 2100 governance arrangements, institutional improvements and policy reforms are underway. In 2019, the country signed an agreement with the Netherlands government for support in creating an enabling environment. Some BDP 2100 institutions have already been established—such as the Delta Governance Council, an inter-ministerial forum headed by the Prime Minister, that gives strategic direction. The Project/Programme Selection Committee will select projects to be implemented, while the Delta Commission will prepare and update annual spending programs. The World Bank will also support the government to identify medium to long-term reforms.

The BDP 2100 includes a strategy for regional co-operation, given that 93 percent of Bangladesh’s total renewable water resources originate in India, Nepal, or China. It provides for third-party facilitation, such as through the Indus Treaty between India and Pakistan, with World Bank support. The World Bank Group stands ready to act as a broker to promote water-sharing agreements and river basin development that can improve regional connectivity—through increased navigation and port access, and development and sharing of hydropower—along with sectors including water quality, DRM, the blue economy, and climate resilience.

Some issues identified in the 2001 water plan will have to be addressed by the BDP 2100 implementation process, such as the need for decentralization and national land-use plans based on spatial planning. Local government decentralization is also important for effective WRM and sustainability.

Scalability and replicability

Given the complexity of deltas and the uncertain impacts of climate change, delta management plans need to be based on flexible, long-term, and comprehensive strategies. Many aspects of the BDP’s design can serve as a model for other deltas, provided they are adjusted to reflect local customs and conditions. These include:

  • Securing high political buy-in and broad stakeholder support, based on extensive consultations from the design stage onward.
  • Adopting  innovative,  nature-friendly  approaches  based on the concept of ‘giving more space to water’ by designing solutions that not only seek to enhance safety, but also to garner social, environmental, and economic benefits, such as multipurpose dikes.
  • Identifying the delta’s main drivers of change and their resulting pressures, taking these as the starting point for the development of adaptive strategies.
  • Conducting baseline studies on thematic areas relevant to the delta in question.
  • Basing investment and policy decisions on  evidence-based tools, such as flood exposure mapping, datasets on water supply stress, geospatial technologies, and sectoral studies.
  • Developing strategies for specific hotspots and for cross-cutting aspects of delta development.
  • Earmarking funds for operations and maintenance of water infrastructure and delta governance

Potential  challenges that have to be considered include:

  • The difficulty of folding existing development policies and sectoral plans into one comprehensive,  multisectoral  plan  that  addresses climate change, the environment, biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, internal water transport, energy, and land management as well as their interaction with water.
  • Impacts of upstream investments on downstream (transboundary) users and vice versa.
  • Impacts of transboundary water projects (e.g. hydropower or multipurpose dams) on the delta.
  • Unforeseen long-term landscape changes associated with erosion and sedimentation caused by interventions in the delta, such as river course stabilization and land reclamation.
  • The need to downscale global circulation models to generate locally relevant, high-resolution, and reliable daa as the basis for climate-informed  investment  design and planning.

Delta planning is a never-ending process that requires data to be continually collected and analyzed, to support research and modeling in areas such as:

  • Hydrological and geomorphological modeling, with special attention for river flow and quality, siltation and sedimentation, sea-level rise and other climate-change impacts.
  • Possible long-term implications of land reclamation from major rivers and the sea.
  • Polder management and significant land governance reforms.
  • Nature and extent of land subsidence and ways to slow it down.
  • Development of crop varieties that are resilient to salinity and waterlogging.

Conclusion: The Road Ahead

The implementation of BDP 2100 is only just starting. Putting ADM into practice will require an enabling environment    in which agencies and ministries have clearly defined  responsibilities and a mechanism for coordinating their policies and activities. Adequate and predictable financing  will be essential, in terms of (i) the overall amount, (ii) its  distribution over shorter-term strategies, DRM, climate-change  mitigation  and  adaptation,  operations  and  maintenance, and pollution control, (iii) ADM-related investments such as modeling, and (iv) supporting institutions such as governance bodies, water user groups, and stakeholder forums.

Even meeting all these requirements will not be enough. While integrated WRM addresses supply-side issues,  co-operation among users is necessary to resolve demand-side issues. Bangladesh has developed mandatory provisions for community participation in water management, an approach that needs further nurturing. Given the transboundary issues involved, regional coordination is also needed to address issues such as navigation, port access, shared development and use of hydropower, and more timely and accurate forecasting of floods and droughts.

As the objectives pursued by delta management are generally considered public goods, the public sector typically takes the lead in this area. Yet private-sector partnerships have proven effective in various aspects, including pollution control, operations and maintenance of polders and embankments, and water-supply service provision in urban and rural areas.

Multiple development partners—including the Netherlands, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, the    UNDP, FAO, and various multilateral development banks, e.g. the WB, ADB—have pledged their support for imple menting BDP 2100. The World Bank is ready to help convene and coordinate development partner activities


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