Institutional Change in Polder Water Management Governance Brings Revolutionary Potential in Bangladesh

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By Salma Begum and Hamidul Huq, IDSS-UIU and Ahmad Salahuddin, IRRI

“Cropping intensity of thousands of acres of agricultural land could be increased and yields doubled if water management issues were resolved,” the Water Management Group (WMG) members from costal polders emphasized. They described obstacles posing challenges despite their mandated role in local water management:
“No matter how much we try, critical water bodies like canals, river branches, and beels (large perennial water bodies) are leased out to vested interest groups, which hinders crop cultivation,” members opinioned.

They added, “Since project (BlueGold) ¹ period ended, no one listens to us and never came to check on our activities, even though we are authorized by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) for maintaining local water management.”

In the pursuit of improving the agri-food systems of Asian Mega-Deltas against intensifying climate change impacts, a comprehensive study was conducted in Polder 34/2P in Khulna and Polder 43/2F in Patuakhali – two polders in Bangladesh. Both polders were parts of the BlueGold project.

The study aimed to comprehend the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of local WMGs and Water Management Associations (WMAs) in establishing the foundation for a participatory, bottom-up approach. The objective was to make recommendations towards building institutional resilience that supports continuous improvement of the system.

The WMGs and WMAs members came forward to share their experiences, opinions, struggles and recommendations related to their challenging, yet officially mandated role in sustaining local water management. Despite being authorized for this work, the WMGs currently feel directionless and lacking oversight in the absence of continued support from authorities in the post-project period. Empowering these groups with strong leadership and governance can unlock significant potential in securing the future of Bangladesh’s climate vulnerable coastal regions.

Who’s in Charge?

“When the Blue Gold project organized the WMGs and WMAs, BWDB granted us registration. But they left after, and never came to check on us,” the WMG and WMA members shared. The WMGs and WMAs consist of local farmers and community members responsible for water management at the polder level. Participants expressed disappointment over the lack of active monitoring by the BWDB post the Blue Gold project. While BWDB authorized WMGs and WMAs to continue managing activities beyond the project period, the absence of oversight leaves these groups adrift.

Many WMG members were unaware of BWDB’s role as the designated authorized organization provisioned by by-laws for them. The participants shared concerns that while BWDB excels in engineering, the absence and availability of experienced field-level staff in managing community organizations and associations, poses a challenge in providing oversight.

Accessibility Matters

“The Agriculture Department (DAE) office is right here in our union parishad, we can walk in any day to talk to them” members stated. Unlike the BWDB who handles large infrastructure projects, the DAE not only has local offices in Union Parishads, officials also regularly visit fields within the polders to provide necessary inputs, training, and other supports to local farmers.

The WMGs recognized the BWDB’s vital role for improved infrastructure around the polders. “But in our croplands, and for water management issues we face in the fields, we need the guidance of the Agricultural Extension Department people. “WMGs and WMAs members emphasized the regular visits by DAE officials who can provide necessary inputs and offer a responsive channel for expressing concerns about agricultural and water management issues.

A Call for Leadership

The WMGs describe themselves as “a locomotive without an engine” or “a stove with no flame to light it” due to lack of continued direction and authority. Participants advocated for a change in institutional rearrangement, suggesting that oversight from the DAE and a stronger support of local government (Union Parishad) could bring success in sustaining local water management groups post-project.

“We need (DAE) officials to invest time as part of their job obligations in guiding our community groups from season to season. Only then can we secure our future here for generations to come.” Hence, the WMG members strongly recommend provisions for officially registering under the DAE, which can provide accessible leadership tailored to agricultural and water management needs within the polders.

¹ The BlueGold project was implemented during 2013-2021 by Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) and The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE).

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