The southwest coastal delta of Bangladesh is not only geographically home to a dynamic interplay between land and water, and between fresh surface water and saline tides, but also to contentious debates on flood management policy. It has been argued that dealing with delta floods in this region boils down to adopting either open or closed approaches. This paper longitudinally structures the open-or-closed debate based on a number of emblematic water management projects in the region. Departing from a typical open wetland history, river and polder embankments increasingly started to constrain flood dynamics. Upheaval among rural populations in response to the negative impacts of hydraulic engineering plans and works coalesced in efforts to restore open approaches, synthesized in the Tidal River Management concept. Its resemblance to historic overflow irrigation is often used politically as a yardstick to challenge the dominant hydraulic engineering paradigm. This paper argues that dealing with floods in Bangladesh requires plans, policies and projects formulated against the historic background of complex interactions among social processes, environmental dynamics and technological interventions: a lesson to be incorporated in on-going policy-making processes and long-term delta management plans.

Introduction

It has been argued that dealing with flood dynamics in Bangladesh boils down to adopting either an open or closed approach (Hughes et al., 1994; Islam, 2001; Rahman & Salehin, 2013). Both approaches rely on hydraulic engineering, but in a somewhat dichotomized way; closed approaches can be characterized by high river or polder embankments and large water control structures, while open approaches include floodplain management, temporary water retention and lower embankments (Islam, 2001; Warner et al., 2013). Different policy perspectives on how water and floods should be dealt with prescribe different kinds of interventions. Over the last decades contentious water policy debates took shape, during which both perspectives have been supported as well as criticized (Islam, 2001; Klaassen, 2009).

Although nuance to these ‘extremes’ is justified, for now we will follow this line of thinking and approach water policy debates in Bangladesh accordingly. We will structure the policy debate longitudinally by means of selected hydraulic engineering initiatives, plans and projects materializing against the background of various epochs in Bangladesh's flood management, with a geographical focus on the southwest delta1. In the southwest delta of Bangladesh, dealing with the delta's rivers and tidal flood dynamics takes center stage. The region is home to several million inhabitants who depend on its agri- and aquaculture-producing capacities as well as ecosystem resources provided by the Sundarbans coastal mangrove. Prolonged water logging, sinking lands, river siltation tidal intrusion and climate related sea level rise have been identified as urgent environmental challenges that need to be addressed in the region (Syvitski et al., 2009; Pethick & Orford, 2013; Brammer, 2014). Historic interventions are overridden by contemporary water and flood management projects2 that try again and again to address old and newly emerging socio-environmental challenges. Understanding the evolution of water policy in Bangladesh, under the influence of on-going environmental, technological and social dynamics, is important given contemporary challenges, in particular in the country's southwest delta (Chowdhury, 2010). In doing so we place contemporary policy debates3 on water, flood and polder management in the southwest delta in an historical perspective and flesh out relevant insights that are not axiomatically incorporated into current policy-making processes.

We will analyze the debates by means of the policy pendulum concept. Its main tenet is that policy approaches tend to oscillate between contrasting policy directions over time under the influence of social, environmental or technological drivers. The pendulum's position, located somewhere on an imaginary line between the two poles, characterizes the policy orientation dominant at the time. A pendulum swing was implicitly described in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mission report that reviewed a major flood management plan for Bangladesh (Faaland, 1995) and was later used by water policy researchers to analyze policy dynamics (Warner, 2008; Huitema & Meijerink, 2009); see also Wallace (2000).

Hydraulic engineering often attempts to control water dynamics prevalent in world deltas by means of separation: land from water, or fresh water from saline water. During British colonial rule, a large infrastructural network was put in place which physically prevented seasonal overland water flow from spreading out over the floodplains in Bengal. This kind of ‘dividing’ infrastructure was not only implemented from the perspective of flood prevention; hundreds of miles of slightly raised earthen walls were constructed in muddy floodplains to support a vast railway network, intended to ease inter-delta communication and transportation (Iqbal, 2010).

The process of compartmentalizing the delta, initiated at the end of the 19th century, soon started to display its side effects (Bhattacharyya, 2011). The earthen walls were often constructed perpendicularly to the direction of flows, thereby criss-crossing and damming various waterways. Insufficient drainage capacity in the form of culverts underneath the embankments resulted in stagnant water in enclosed areas. Failed crops and reduced agricultural production, extensive and abnormal floods elsewhere, and water-related diseases including severe outbreaks of malaria started to plague the delta's population (Iqbal, 2010).

While general concerns regarding the socio-environmental impacts of the construction of the railway-supporting and floodplain-constraining embankment network were expressed as early as 1846 (Majumdar, 1938; Sage et al., 1846 cited in Bhattacharyya, 2011; see also Harrison, 1875), explicit critiques of the closing-off infrastructure came from British health researchers. Charles Bentley convincingly showed that the breeding grounds for mosquito larvae (along water edges) dramatically increased following the construction of embanked water pools and the resulting stagnant water (Bentley, 1925). Sir William Willcocks, the renowned British civil engineer who designed the first Aswan dam in Egypt and who was stationed in Calcutta in the late 1920s at the end of his career, heavily criticized the interventions that affected water flows in the region (Ozden, 2014). He questioned British colonial interventions in Bengal head-on by publicly and vigorously advocating for traditional forms of overflow irrigation covering Bengal's wide floodplains and fields:

Overflow irrigation, with the muddy waters of the river floods, is the only kind of irrigation on which engineers, agriculturists, and public health authorities can be in absolute accord, for it enriches the soil, combats malaria and relieves the congestion of the river in flood’ (Willcocks, 1930, p. 104).

This statement should be seen as ‘… yet another call for colonial engineers to be more attuned to the physical and historical conditions of their territory’ (Ozden, 2014, p. 203 referring to Klingensmith, 2007). The Bengal Irrigation Department interpreted his message as a call for large scale removal of embankments and responded by stating that ‘… it is easy to pile up embankments, [but] it is a most complex matter to remove them’ (Addams-Williams, 1919 cited in Klingensmith, 2008, p. 9).

The short historic debate outlined above shapes the contours of a by-now centuries-long, and most likely ‘delternal’ policy struggle over dealing with water, and its associated flood and sedimentation processes, in Bangladesh. The hydro-morphological characteristics of the Bengal delta pose seemingly insurmountable challenges for policy makers (Chowdhury, 2010; Sadoff et al., 2013). Similar policy discussions have been ongoing in other large deltaic areas, resulting in evolving insights and policy re-orientations, which sometimes include the rediscovery or restoration of ‘old’ practices. In the case of the Mississippi delta, a long period of reliance on river-constraining levees, or ‘levees only’ policy, was complemented by ideas proposing floodways and flood diversion after a major flood in 1927; this was more in line with the historic dynamics of that river system (Barry, 1998; Priscoli & Stakhiv, 2015). In the Dutch delta, a Room for the River Programme was launched in the early 2000s, which proposed embankment setbacks and re-opening up floodplains for controlled flood dynamics (Warner et al., 2013). This style of river management had previously been replaced by straightjacketing and dredging of rivers (Van Heezik, 2008), an approach currently strongly supported in Bangladesh (Cook, 2010).

The article continues by sketching a brief social-ecological history of the southwest delta (Iqbal, 2010). A third section highlights selected key initiatives4 that have profoundly impacted the debate in recent decades: the Coastal Embankment Project (CEP), the Flood Action Plan (FAP) and the Khulna-Jessore Drainage and Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP). We characterize the FAP as a policy formulation project, with the objective of crafting a national policy and action plan in response to Bangladesh's floods. The KJDRP engaged with the socio-environmental consequences of the CEP and was an implementation project in the southwest delta. Within the context of the KJDRP, the contested Tidal River Management (TRM) concept materialized. This concept is further explored in more detail in the fourth section. A final section presents concluding points.

A brief social-ecological history of the southwest delta of Bangladesh

For millennia the Bengal delta has been home to a dynamic interplay of water and land, for which catchwords such as ‘fluid geographies’ and ‘hybrid landscapes’ have been coined to indicate the difficulty of demarcating where land ends and water starts (Lahiri-Dutt & Samanta, 2013; see also Biggs, 2010). Peak discharges in the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, tidal movements, and an occasional earthquake drive erosion and land formation processes in the delta (Hughes et al., 1994; Sarker et al., 2013). This has created the basis of a typical flat delta landscape, characterized by braided rivers, moving islands and fertile soil, but which is profoundly atypical when considering the enormous volumes of water and suspended sediment passing through the delta. The delta's hydro-morphology changes on a daily basis and ranks the delta amongst the most dynamic in the world.

Rivers in Bangladesh frequently change their courses. Maps depict rivers as floodplains stretching for miles in width, comprising various strands of channels and sandbars. The delta is scattered with baors, or oxbow-shaped lakes. These are remnants of meandering rivers that have changed course over time and left physical marks of their past trajectories in the landscape. The Ganges, one of the most prominent rivers in the delta, used to flow southward, through the Hooghly river and Calcutta in India and straight into the Bay of Bengal. It was only a few centuries ago that the river started to discharge part of its water towards the southeast, entering contemporary Bangladesh via its western border. This new trajectory started to form the southwest delta of the Bengal delta, and it expanded the Gorai river. Presently, the Ganges itself is facing substantially reduced incoming flows of water and suspended sediment for various reasons; it is reorienting its course due to geological tilt (Sadoff et al., 2013).

During medieval times, consecutive rulers built series of embankments to protect their capitals from seasonal flooding. Especially under Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah (1442–1459), portions of the southern region of Bengal were equipped with irrigation and drainage works. These local forms of hydraulic infrastructure were far from systematic hydraulic schemes. During the rule of the Mughals, which started in the early 17th century, emphasis was placed on flood and irrigation management and on the distribution of water via canals. These rulers also introduced new water governance arrangements. Zamindars5, local landlords who held large amounts of land and employed peasants or raiyats to work in their fields, assumed the task of pulbandi works, or public (water) works constructed by communities. A governmental budget was allocated for these tasks, and Zamindars were entitled to charge taxes to people using or benefiting from hydraulic infrastructure (Kamal, 2006; Van Schendel, 2010).

In the haor6 and beel7 regions of Bangladesh, particular forms of hydraulic engineering materialized. In both regions contour bunds, or relatively low embankments, were constructed for water management purposes since the 14th century (Quassem & van Urk, 2006). Also referred to as submersible embankments, these low dykes protect Boro, or winter rice, which is cultivated during the dry season, during its final growth stage, against high water in the flood season. By the time harvesting was completed, embankments started to overflow and thereby inundated the haors for several months. After the flood season, the embankments needed repair, which was conducted by community labor (Hughes et al., 1994; Duyne, 1998; Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), 2012).

Very similar to hydraulic practices in the northeast, in the southwest delta Zamindars oversaw the construction of low, temporary embankments and wooden sluice gates in the tidal coastal region during the 17th and 18th centuries. These temporary embankments were called ostomasi badh (Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), 2003; Institute for Right View, 2010), meaning ‘embankments for eight months’. They were operational roughly between October and May (Begum, 2011). The embankments prevented inflow of tidal water in the rice fields during the last months of the dry season, when the Aus spring rice was ready for harvesting. After harvest, farmers would partially dismantle the temporary embankments to allow flood waters to enter into the previously enclosed areas, which enabled the deposition of sediments, nutrients and also allowed for seasonal fishing. This flood period, roughly between June and September, could be labeled jowar bhata khelano, meaning free play of tidal flow, on agricultural lands (Institute for Right View, 2010). It was important not only for fertilizing the soil and for widely distributing sediments but also for spreading out flood waters during the flood season. For this form of overland irrigation and soil nourishment, embankments are ‘… an abomination, unless they are freely pierced by openings’ (Willcocks, 1930, p. 101).

Under British colonial rule a number of developments took place that tipped the balance towards structural closing-off efforts. In addition to an extended railway network, embankments were systematically constructed alongside rivers, for example along the Damodar river (Bhattacharyya, 2011; Lahiri-Dutt & Samanta, 2013). According to Bhattacharyya (2011), the first major hydraulic works were laid out by the British beginning in the 1830s in an attempt to protect the city of Barddhaman (Burdwan) in lower Bengal. The plans to strengthen the left bank of the Damodar were accompanied by plans to remove 25 miles of embankments across the river, allowing that side to overflow first in case river water levels reached a critical height. The Bengal delta was regarded as a region with mis-behaving rivers and delta wastelands that should be trained and reclaimed respectively for revenue generating purposes (Iqbal, 2010, pp. 26–28). The 1793 Permanent Settlement Act was built on the existing Zamindar socio-institutional system and created a governance structure that stimulated land reclamation, private ownership (and hence, protection) of land, and discouraged the Zamindars from taking social responsibility for coordinating maintenance of canals and other hydraulic works (Kamal, 2006; Iqbal, 2010). This quickly led to river siltation. Rivers started to overflow their banks and sometimes breached at various locations, against which the British formulated stronger protective strategies. It did not occur to them that many of these breaches or kanwas were secretly made by communities in an attempt to have water flow through ‘dead’ or silted up rivers again. This represented the last remnants of a disappearing form of overflow irrigation (Willcocks, 1930; Kamal, 2006). Silted up canals were referred to as dead rivers or drainage lines at best, and they lost their meaning as flood irrigation canals in combination with temporary embankments (Kamal, 2006).

This short social-ecological history has sketched how a combination of technological interventions, environmentally dynamic processes and social drivers and responses started to close off parts of the open delta landscape. Interventions were still relatively isolated as well as temporary in nature, but during the British colonial period, more priority was given to schematic embankment construction and land reclamation using flood protective infrastructure. This went hand in hand with sharp debates on whether systematic river embankments were appropriate interventions in this fluvial environment or were, instead, an approach that should be avoided. By the 19th and into the first decades of the 20th century, the Bengal delta was socio-environmentally in decline; emblematic of this decline was the need to start importing rice from neighboring Burma (Iqbal, 2010).

From the middle of the 20th century ‘modern’ water management policy, along with its particular ontology, technologies and concepts, was introduced to Bangladesh in general and to the southwest delta in particular. As shown by David Biggs in his analysis of the Mekong delta, the advent of foreign hydraulic experts as well as the implementation of new hydraulic projects does not occur on a clean slate. History and a gradual process of new forms of water management merge or overlap with pre-existing prevalent approaches (Biggs, 2010). This introduction, in the case of Bangladesh, was distinctively dominant because institutional organization was weak and technical assistance from international donors was channeled solely through a new national executing agency (East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (EPWAPDA), later Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB)). BWDB quickly evolved into a massive and technocratic institution to pursue primarily flood protection and food production, based on a technical-engineering view on water management. This happened in close connection to international institutions and individuals, who saw Bangladesh as a region of unequalled professional challenges regarding delta management (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1966). The next section will discuss a number of plans and projects resulting from these developments. They distinctly represented, as well as contributed to, the evolution of the open versus closed policy debate.

Hydraulic projects: closure and slowly opening up

Foreign involvement in water management has arguably flooded Bangladesh, leading to an overwhelming number of plans and physical interventions in the hydraulic domain since the 1950s. Consecutive floods in 1954, 1955 and 1956 caused large-scale damage to human lives and food crops in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The Government of Pakistan requested technical assistance from the United Nations to formulate engineered flood prevention measures. The international advisory mission, known as the Krug mission8, expressed serious doubts about the need for a policy consisting of large flood protection schemes alone (Hughes et al., 1994). While stressing the possible benefits of embankments, such as improved protection against floods, the mission stated that ‘… another objection to the use of embankments is that they exclude flood water at times when it may be beneficial in irrigating the crops and in bringing silt which increases the fertility of the soil’. Additionally, ‘… the erection of embankments across natural drainage outlets has led to water logging and malarious conditions. Drainage of areas behind the embankments should always receive careful consideration’ (United Nations, 1957, p. 251). In contrast to common belief, the Krug mission clearly exhibited hesitation regarding how to best approach flood issues; it encouraged smaller water control and drainage projects, including in the southwest region (United Nations, 1957). With the Great Bengal Famine of 1943–1944 in the back of its mind, the government's Irrigation Department had already initiated a relatively small program of embankment construction in the 1950s. In an effort to initiate a (pre)green revolution intended to re-establish the ‘granary of Khulna’ (Iqbal, 2010; Haque et al., 2014) saline tidal floods were to be kept out of the lands to facilitate increased rice production (Quassem & van Urk, 2006).

The Krug mission recommended establishing the EPWAPDA, which represented a run-up to hydraulic initiatives of a different magnitude. Right after its founding in 1959, EPWAPDA ordered research to be conducted by its technical consultant on a larger, intensified flood prevention program in the southwest delta. The International Engineering Company, based in San Francisco, California, subsequently coordinated this study and proposed to scale up the on-going embankment construction efforts in a concerted program. It lost the nuance conveyed in the Krug mission report but straightforwardly called for an extensive embankment project to fully prevent floods, positioned within the context of modernized water management introduced in the southwest delta in the 1960s (Leedshill-De Leuw Engineers, 1968). The proposed project was called the CEP and ran at a time when ‘hydraulic closure’ was prominent not only in the southwest delta but also in other parts of the country9.

CEP: rise of the flood embankments

Within the context of the CEP (1961–late 1970s) over one hundred polders were constructed in southwest delta region, comprising a network of hundreds of miles of embankments. The CEP was funded by the United States Agency for International Development and relied heavily on the Dutch polder concept: constructing peripheral embankments intended for full flood prevention, with sluice gates, canals and other hydraulic infrastructure to manage water inside the low-lying polder (Leedshill-De Leuw Engineers, 1968). Recommended in an updated Master Plan (1964), three types of polders were proposed: polders with gravity drainage, polders with tidal sluice drainage and polders with pump drainage (http://www.icid.org/cp_bangladesh.html, accessed January 2016).

A special advisory group on deltaic areas, formed after an international delta management conference, assessed and applauded the achievements CEP had made by 1965 (UNESCO, 1966; United Nations, 1966)10. It minimized reservations about the potential environmental, hydrological or social impacts of the hundreds of miles of embankment and reduced floodplains in the southwest. It was argued that there would be only minor impacts on the changed tidal and sedimentation processes after the completion of the project. The CEP is to be considered as a first step on the long road ultimately leading to an optimum utilization of the agricultural and industrial resources of the coastal belt and to an adequate degree of protection of the population and their properties against flooding from both the rivers and the sea (United Nations, 1966, p.12).

During Phase One, which lasted until 1971 when Bangladesh gained independence, nearly 100 polders were constructed. Phase Two started in 1972 and lasted until the late 1970s, during which an additional 40 polders were embanked (Chadwick & Datta, 2001; Ali, 2002).

FAP: river engineering plans and compartmentalized controlled flooding pilots

Major flood events in Bangladesh in 1987–88 triggered another surge of Western donors intended to, in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh (GoB), start developing a national flood management strategy with the objective of preventing flood disasters in Bangladesh once and for all. The ensuing birth of the FAP in 1989 targeted to ‘… provide protection from flooding by the construction of significant engineering projects including major embankments, compartments and other related structures’ (Wood, 1999, p. 733). Eight proposals were generated for tackling flooding based on control activities supported by studies and pilots. The French proposal in particular sought to train the rivers to discharge the water as fast as possible into the Bay of Bengal. The US proposal (Rogers et al., 1989) was far more integrated but impossible to implement by assuming cooperation between upstream and downstream riparians (Parker, 1992; Brammer, 2010). The doubts raised by the Krug mission about constructing a large flood prevention scheme, especially in the sensitive hydro-morphological dynamics of the central southwest, were largely ignored.

In the first years of the FAP, large-scale hydraulic planning proceeded relatively unchecked by societal groups. Sparked by international indignation with the top-down engineering approach and lack of societal participation in yet another hydraulic megaproject (see Dreze et al., 1997), the attitude changed in the early 1990s, forcefully opening up the debate and allowing various social groups to join in discussions about flood management concepts (Adnan, 1992; Kvaløy, 1994). While the spontaneity of anti-FAP demonstrations can be questioned (Kvaløy, 1994), public protests did attract media attention: they were broadcast around the world, causing unease amongst the donor community. Rising tensions about the FAP policy were also felt at the level of FAP's individual projects, including the Compartmentalization Pilot Project, or FAP-20. This plan's centerpiece project was implemented between October 1991 and July 2000 by BWDB and two foreign consultancy firms in a pre-existing flood control and drainage scheme in Tangail. Funded by the Dutch and German governments together with GoB, the project presented a new flood control and water management concept for ‘living with floods’: compartmentalization flooding. The plan envisaged controlled flooding and drainage in compartmentalized sections of an existing polder, with the objective of experimenting to determine whether the practice would lead to improved food production based on this form of water management. Although heavily ‘controlling’ in terms of managing flood flows, FAP-20 contrasts with flood prevention in the sense that it pursued opening up embankments and facilitating floods in compartmentalized polders. Similar plans existed before 1989 amongst international institutions (UNDP, 1989, as mentioned in IOV (Operations Review Unit), 1993), but because there were no earlier opportunities, a pilot or ‘socio-environmental experiment’ was purposefully included in the FAP.

FAP-20's development model, however, also encouraged the partial enclosure of beels located within polders, thus squeezing the area available to fishermen dependent on free flows of water, and instigated a regulated water system inside the embankments coordinated by water user groups. The implementation of piloted controlled flooding in the area meant that less-valuable land was sacrificed for the benefit of more valuable land, and that lands occupied by homeless would be needed for flooding and newly constructed embankments (Parker, 1992). The promised ‘secure environment’ for Tangail in practice only benefited landowners at the expense of sharecroppers and the landless fishers facing inadequate mitigation measures – instead, the plan was a prelude to widened socio-economic disparities. In a very practical sense, the sluicegate (meaning flooding or no flooding) operators were not paid and neither were participatory subcommittees. Thus, despite the intended participatory mechanisms, those with money to pay the operator, or alternatively to pay mastans, or musclemen, to enforce a decision, were effectively in control. Interviews about FAP20's project design suggest that while the Dutch wanted the controlled flooding and drainage option, the Germans wanted to ‘pour concrete’, which was also much favored by BWDB. A participatory exercise was organized with five options, from drainage-only to an increasing numbers of control structures. When the Dutch sociologist leading the consultation was on holiday, the most concrete-intensive option was pushed through. As a consequence, far more embankments were built than necessary to test the concept (Warner, 2008, 2010).

By the early 1990s FAP-20 was being framed as an environmental disaster in the making. International and Bangladeshi non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who bussed thousands of demonstrators from Tangail to the World Bank office in Dhaka, criticized the effects on livelihoods, especially for the fishermen and char land dwellers outside the embankments. While the environmental catastrophe besetting beel Dakatia (see next section) was held up to the donors defending compartmentalization and controlled flooding in FAP-20, the project cannot meaningfully be called a ‘development disaster’ (Rahman, 1995), yet it could ride the wave of successful opposition to hydraulic development projects, such as the Narmada dam in nearby India (Dreze et al., 1997). This made donors circumspect about supporting unpopular development projects, and protests against the FAP did indeed stir up these feelings. It led to Ministerial visits by sponsors from the Netherlands and Germany, to debates in Dutch, German and European Parliaments, and to an intermediate change of consultant (Warner, 2010). FAP was discontinued in the mid-1990s. While FAP-20 continued for a few more years until 2000, the compartment idea was not fully dropped but was mirrored in the KJDRP.

KJDRP: contestation over restored tidal flooding

The mid-1980s and early 1990s revealed a number of socio-environmental consequences resulting from the CEP embankments. While in the first years after polder construction the absence of tidal floods allowed two rice harvests to be produced, the siltation in the adjacent rivers and waterlogging within the polders soon became a structural phenomenon in the region (Shampa & Pramanik, 2012; Awal, 2014). The polder embankments not only prevented floods from overflowing the land but also halted the deposition of silt and clay on the former floodplains. Vast amounts of suspended sediment in the tidal water settled progressively in the rivers. The Hari-Mukteshwari, Bhadra and Kobodak rivers, three of the major rivers in the region, severely silted up during this period, creating problems with draining water from the polders. These environmental consequences resulted in 10–12,000 hectares of land in beels and polders being structurally water logged, as the water could not be drained away overland, nor could it be discharged (Institute for Right View, 2010).

In an attempt to address water logging issues and to improve drainage, the KJDRP was formed in the early 1990s and thereby paralleled the policy formulation process of the FAP. The KJDRP was funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and GoB and executed by BWDB (ADB, 2004). It covered approximately 100,000 ha; a quarter of the CEP area. The KJDRP had to address the physical hydraulic heritage of the CEP polders, including the socio-environmental consequences of the project. It offered a spot-on arena where debates about physically building on top of existing engineering works – versus more open ways to approach water and land management issues in the delta – would materialize in practice. As will be demonstrated, this amounts to technological as well as social forms of opening up, thus building on a movement that had been set in motion during the FAP. Importantly, during this period awareness of environmental flow requirements for rivers grew (Rogers et al., 1989).

The centerpiece of the debate on open versus closed approaches during the KJDRP is an iconic public embankment cutting in beel Dakatia. This largest beel in Bangladesh's southwest region is located within the peripheral embankment of polder 25, constructed in the late 1960s during CEP and located within the KJDRP's project boundaries. By 1982 the beel started to experience severe waterlogging problems. Calls on the authorities, and even a march involving thousands of people demanding that water logging be addressed did not have any effect. The land remained completely infertile and was presented as an environmental development disaster (Rahman, 1995). In September 1990, during a mass community mobilization (mahashamabesh), four ‘public cuts’ or non-authorized breaches were made in the embankment with the intention of draining away water from the beel and restoring tidal dynamics (and land heightening) inside it (Rahman, 1995; Adnan, 2006). The restored open connection with the Hamkura river immediately initiated tidal dynamics and sedimentation processes within the beel. A substantial increase in the land level was observed after the public cuts were forcefully closed by BWDB in 1994 (Adnan, 2006). The temporary restoration of controlled tidal flooding in polders came to be known conceptually as TRM.

Accounts vary in attributing relevance or prime importance to the factors driving public embankment cutting. The southwest delta already had a century-old history of local social movements, especially in relation to water and environmental governance (Haque et al., 2014). Amongst these are historic examples of illegal cutting of embankments, under the cover of darkness, in response to the disregard of indigenous flood management practices (Willcocks, 1930; Adnan, 2006) and the formation of the badhbondi andolon (embankment movement) in response to negligence of hydraulic maintenance during the last decades of the Zamindar era (Haque et al., 2014). Such local movements were strongly associated with leftist political activism and later on attracted the support of NGOs who had close ties to community leadership. Haque et al. (2014) argue that it was not so much a leftist political agenda that was being pursued but that it was the established social network in itself that facilitated the formation of newer movements, with strong support from local leadership. In the 1980s, NGOs aiming to improve socio-economic conditions for communities living in the impacted southwest delta increasingly started to take an interest in this form of controlled tidal flooding (Adnan, 2006; Haque et al., 2014). This was especially the case for the NGO Uttaran, working exclusively in the southwest region since 1985 (www.uttaran.net, accessed January 2016 (Uttaran, 2011)). The NGOs critiqued the construction of polder embankments and the neglect of social participation in hydraulic decision-making head-on, stirring up general discontent with the governmental agencies unwilling to incorporate people's solutions into hydraulic projects preceding the KJDRP (Rahman, 1995). Past engineering works, embankment strengthening projects and their executive institutions were all targeted (Coastal Development Partnership, 2008; Institute for Right View, 2010; Uttaran, 2011). The KJDRP was impugned publicly as a ‘project of mass destruction’, and one of its components, the Bhobodah sluice gate, referred to as a ‘death trap’ (Islam & Kibria, 2006: cover page, 2006, p. 14).

For BWDB, the public cutting of embankments was unacceptable because it went against BWDB's authoritative monopoly in managing hydraulic engineering works. Although international consultants had incorporated plans for controlled tidal flooding in coastal basins in project documents in the early 1990s (Haskoning, 1993), BWDB did not include the practice in the KJDRP, arguing that it misrepresented the real problem and that it was not scientifically grounded. The lack of hydro-morphological insights regarding the suitability or effects of TRM remained a contested issue in TRM projects to come (Nowreen et al., 2013). A socio-environmental impact study carried out by research institute EGIS (now CEGIS) in early 1998 was an important step in terms of combining open and closed approaches in a single policy recommendation: it advised the construction of a number of engineering works, but it also argued for the inclusion of a TRM project based on scientific study (EGIS, 1998). Only towards the end of the KJDRP in 2002 did BWDB incorporate TRM in beel Kedaria (ADB, 2004).

Analysis and discussion: hybridizing flood management with TRM

The previous sections have highlighted a number of water-related policy approaches, plans and practical interventions materializing in the southwest delta of Bangladesh. They show that over time, a dominant paradigm prescribing closing-off infrastructure was complemented by incidental occasions where room for opening up in the form of restoring controlled flooding within polders was created. During the KJDRP era, initiatives emerged that became conceptually formulated as TRM: restoring tidal flooding by means of a temporary and partial removal of (polder) embankments, scouring the adjacent river bed and depositing sediments within the beels (see Figure 1). We will now look more closely at TRM and analyze how the practice may be positioned in relation to the open versus closed water policy debates.
Fig. 1.

Controlled flooding in beels/polders with TRM in the Bangladesh delta.

Fig. 1.

Controlled flooding in beels/polders with TRM in the Bangladesh delta.

TRM takes place in a national context where reliance on closing-off engineering and infrastructural approaches to water management is profoundly dominant (Cook, 2010; see also footnote 2). Therefore, TRM does not genuinely represent an all-encompassing move towards open or hybrid approaches but might be better seen as a ‘partial’ pendulum swing, or, in innovation literature terms, as niche development in a broader policy landscape (cf. Geels & Schot, 2007). In regard to the ‘place’ of TRM on the scale of the open versus closed debate, it may be seen as a hybrid form: based on existing flood preventive embankments but temporarily open to tidal flood dynamics. The way TRM ‘operates’ resembles pre-polder overflow irrigation, seasonally submersible embankments, and periods of jowar-bhata khelano in floodplains (Willcocks, 1930; Institute for Right View, 2010; Haque et al., 2014). Its feasibility is limited to particular geographical areas (beels or other low-lying areas in the tidal zone of the southwest delta) and the scale of the practice is so far only marginal compared to the size of the southwest delta. Furthermore, TRM depends on a specific duration of tidal dynamics (usually a number of years) in order to be effective. The temporal nature of the practice means that political and policy decisions will have to made regarding when to open and when to close a selected beel.

TRM has socio-politically and conceptually been framed in a number of ways. As remarked by Haque et al., quoting one of their interviewees: ‘It's a long time when polders and waterlogging were main targets of [our] TRM movement; we are now more of an environmental movement for rescuing the southwest from ongoing ecological disaster and climate change’ (Haque et al., 2014, p. 205). The earlier shift in emphasis on TRM as a form of indigenous hydraulic engineering, a solution for water logging problems, and a means over which to challenge vested institutional power relations has by now been complemented by representations of TRM as a climate change adaptation measure and eco-engineering innovation (Uttaran, 2011, 2013), an innovation (Rahman & Salehin, 2013), and it is regarded as the object of study within the context of ecosystem services valuation. We are not certain whether the interest of ‘new’ actors – including political actors and socio-environmental NGOs – in TRM preceded this conceptual broadening, or vice versa. Relatedly, the representation of TRM as a community-driven intervention based on unequivocal consensus is contrasted by findings referring to communities being interested in embankment construction and flood prevention, and to communities opposing and even closing the embankment cuts (Paul, 1995; EGIS, 1998; Cook, 2010).

The political nature of TRM is also represented by BWDB's initial reluctance to accept a ‘non-scientific concept’ in the KJDRP's project design and calls for TRM to become scientifically grounded. Following the seminal EGIS study (1998), several scientific studies now go into the technical and social dimensions of TRM11. These investigations may provide further insights into its potential. In the meantime, after the public discontent over TRM operations and crop compensation, BDWB is now moving away from the ‘problematic’ region to other more receptive areas, such as Pakhimara, with renewed TRM projects. TRM plans have been incorporated in long-term policy plans for the region and envisage an upscaling in the future12.

Restoring controlled tidal flooding in basins is not unique to Bangladesh. In the Dutch delta, for example, a series of projects is currently underway that involves the lowering or full removal of embankment sections, subsequently restoring (tidal) flood dynamics13. A major difference is that sedimentation is not always strategically pursued as a way to increase land height (Van Staveren et al., 2014). In the Vietnamese Mekong delta, similar practices are proposed (Socialist Republic of Vietnam & Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2013). Along the Potomac river, located in the northeastern USA, in front of the Pentagon a tidal basin flushes the Washington Channel (http://dc.about.com/od/touristattractions/a/TidalBasin.htm, accessed January 2016).

Conclusion

In the near and longer term future, the southwest delta of Bangladesh will experience a number of intensifying environmental and human challenges including river siltation, flooding in coastal zones, population growth, and impacts of climate change (Syvitski et al., 2009; Pethick & Orford, 2013; Brammer, 2014). Contemporary policy makers are therefore confronted with the question of how to address the southwest delta's water, flood and sedimentation dynamics.

The outcomes of earlier debates among policy makers, engineers, and international advisors embedded in a broader socio-political-environmental reality subsequently materialized in a ‘layered’ series of policy plans and hydraulic projects. We explored these policy debates in a longitudinal and purposefully dichotomized ‘closed’ (high river or polder embankments and large water control structures) versus ‘open’ (floodplain management, temporary water retention and lower embankments) way, to analyze how the debate has evolved over time.

Using a pendulum swing metaphor (Wallace, 2000; Huitema & Meijerink, 2009), the article shows how the water policy debates, plans and initiatives in dealing with floods have oscillated between these extremes over time. Neither one of the policy orientation extremes is met in full: even during historic times of unrestrained flows of water, there has always been some form of local city-protecting bundh raising. During the FAP's fully-fledged engineering plans, counter voices argued for more open (physically as well as socially) approaches, and these sometimes materialized in bottom-up embankment cutting. We argue, therefore, that we might better speak of a bundle of pendula that oscillates between the two poles. At a certain point in time, a majority of pendula may be located near or swing towards a pole, but others are located somewhere in between. Representing alternative interventions or approaches vis-à-vis the dominant policy approach, it may not be known whether they will follow the bundle or remain pending. On this scale, TRM can be seen as a hybrid form: it departs from existing engineered embankments, but is distinctly open in regard to the temporary restoration of tidal flood dynamics in the beels of Bangladesh. At the same time, the socio-political use of the TRM concept complicates effective debates about its potential.

Drawing from insights into TRM we argue that both embankments as well as tidal flood dynamics should be conceptualized differently. In addition to embankments’ capacity to prevent floods, they should also be regarded as having flood facilitating capacities in both time and space: preventing some floods but allowing beneficial floods in regard to raising land and scouring silted rivers. In the same vein, dealing with tidal flood dynamics is not about closing down rivers in the face of twice daily rising water levels; it is also about occasionally opening up a river for its suspended sediments. Understanding tides (and sediment flow) for their dynamics is key to understanding their value: the tides that cause fluctuating water levels and the in- and outflow of water; water that, in turn, facilitates the movement of suspended sediment. As argued by Uttaran, ‘[t]he history of water management […] is mainly a history of silt management’ (Uttaran, 2013, p. 18). These lessons were implicitly adopted in historic approaches, but may need to be highlighted again if they are to be included in contemporary debates on long-term delta planning and water management policy.

While we started this analysis from the physical point of view, a social form of opening up was also identified at the level of social participation processes in hydraulic policy making. Although taking shape hesitantly, and sometimes only effectuated after donors’ interventions or vigorous social protests, it can be argued that discussions about water management and TRM in the southwest delta are no longer the exclusive domain of hydraulic planners and engineers but also of various social actors and representative organizations. Changes in policy orientation have therefore also been effectuated by social actors, represented by broader actor networks and new advocacy coalitions pushing for different types of approaches, which reconfigured existing institutional structures by challenging the dominant policy perspective for its failures. Especially during recent decades, attention to environmental issues and an emphasis on social participation in local water management projects have (forcefully) created some room for ‘opening up’ in the social domain of hydraulic engineering.

This article underscores the complexity of interactions between societal processes along with political discourses, environmental dynamics and technological developments to such an extent that it is difficult to trace the prime drivers of specific outcomes, or in this case, the way the pendulum swings. From our analysis we conclude, however, that the physical rigidity of infrastructure is a relatively strong driver in shaping future development pathways that tend to build on existing flood prevention networks as well as prevalent policy directions (cf. Van Staveren & van Tatenhove, 2016). We argue, therefore, that addressing the dynamics of the Bangladesh delta should be informed by a historic understanding of its layered ‘hydraulic heritage’, long-term environmental processes as well as social network analyses in the water policy domain. Especially in relation to the latter, it has been demonstrated that social action can profoundly modify hydraulic design and operations (cf. Bijker, 2002). A perspective acknowledging this complexity and the complex interaction between a range of processes, therefore, in turn, seems a suitable analytical point of departure to formulate water policy and interventions in the fluid delta environment of Bangladesh.

Acknowledgements

Research for this article was funded by NWO, the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research, under grant number W.01.65.339.00.

1

This southwest delta of Bangladesh comprises the districts of Khulna, Jessore and Satkhira, which are bordered by the Sundarbans coastal mangrove to the south. See also Figure 1.

2

See the Blue Gold program (www.bluegoldbd.org, accessed January 2016), the World Bank's Coastal Embankment Improvement Project (http://www.worldbank.org/projects/P128276/coastal-embankment-improvement-project-phase-1ceip-1?lang=en, accessed January 2016), the Char Development and Settlement Programme IV (www.cdsp.org.bd, accessed January 2016), and the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (www.bandudeltas.org, accessed January 2016).

4

Selection of the projects is based on existing overviews of water and flood management projects (Chadwick & Datta, 2001; Dewan, 2012; Ahmed, 2013) and discussions with experts, in order to identify a manageable number of projects which have significantly influenced water and flood management in Bangladesh and are relevant to the open versus closed debate. The focus on these events is justified because water management policy in Bangladesh is heavily based on flood events and their aftermath (Sultana et al., 2008).

5

The social structure, in which Zamindars held important positions, was in place when the British took control over the region. With the establishment of East Pakistan as a provincial state of Pakistan, followed by the Tenancy Abolition Act, the Zamindar position was formally abolished in 1950 (Van Schendel, 2010).

6

Haors are bowl or saucer shaped shallow depressions that contain water during the whole year. They form a regional wetland found in northeast Bangladesh (Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), 2012).

7

A beel is a bowl shaped natural depression in the southwest delta landscape, which contains water during parts of the year. There may be several beels in one polder.

8

The mission was headed by J. A. Krug, former United States Secretary of the Interior. Another member was Dutch professor W. J. van Blommenstein, who had been active in developing large flood control, drainage and irrigation systems in East Asia. A third member was C. W. Okey, formerly working with the Tennessee Valley Authority (United Nations, 1957), on a large scale water control project intended for regional economic development.

9

The Brahmaputra Right Bank Embankment project involved constructing a 150-mile unilateral river embankment on the river's right (west) bank in the 1960s. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Kaptai hydropower dam was constructed between 1957 and 1961. It was celebrated as a triumph of modernity, but after closing the flood gates, rising water levels behind the dam covered 650 km2 and displaced about 100,000 people (Van Schendel, 2010).

10

Four of the six team members were Dutch civil engineers: J. B. Schijf (team leader), C. P. Lambregts, C. H. de Jong and J. C. Pape (United Nations, 1966, p. 5).

11

Besides project-based studies undertaken by research institutes Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services and Institute of Water Modelling, studies include Awal (2014), Coastal Development Partnership (2008), Haque et al. (2014), Ibne Amir et al. (2013), Shampa & Pramanik (2012) and Uttaran (2011). Few policy analysis studies have been conducted on the concept (Nowreen et al., 2013; Rahman & Salehin, 2013). A Dutch research program (http://www.nwo.nl/en/research-and-results/programmes/Urbanising + Deltas + of + the + World, accessed June 2016) includes projects that will conduct research on TRM.

12

The Bangladesh Delta Plan proposed to further investigate the potential of TRM (senior policy consultant at Bangladesh Delta Plan, personal communication). A TRM Master Plan indicates three series of beels to be inundated in sequence, in three different river catchments between 2015 and 2049 (non-disclosed document, senior policy consultant at Bangladesh Delta Plan, personal communication). See also Uttaran (2013).

13

For impressions, see http://www.waterdunen.com/ and http://www.perkpolder.nl/ (in Dutch, accessed January 2016).

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