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date: 24 June 2017

Livelihoods in Bangladesh Floodplains

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Floodplains are ecologically diverse and important sources of livelihood for rural people. Bangladesh is one of the most floodplain-dominated countries and supports the highest density of rural population in the world. The experience of Bangladesh in floodplain management efforts provides evidence, lessons, and insights on a range of debates and advances in the management of floodplain natural resources, the challenges of climate change, and the role of local communities in sustaining these resources and thereby their livelihoods. Although floodplain areas are primarily used for agriculture, the significance and value of wild common natural resources—mainly fish and aquatic plants—as sources of income and nutrition for floodplain inhabitants has been underrecognized in the past, particularly with respect to poorer households. For example, capture fisheries—a common resource—have been adversely impacted by the building of embankments and sluice gates and by the conversion of floodplains into aquaculture farms, which also exclude poor subsistence users from wetland resources. More generally, an overreliance on engineering “solutions” to flooding that focused on enabling more secure rice cultivation was criticized, particularly in the early 1990s during the Flood Action Plan, for being top down and for ignoring some of the most vulnerable people who live on islands in the braided main rivers. Coastal embankments have also been found to have longer term environmental impacts that undermine their performance because they constrain rivers, which silt up outside these polders, contributing, along with land shrinkage, to drainage congestion. Locals responded in an innovative way by breaking embankments to allow flood water and silt deposition in to regain relative land levels.

Since the early 1990s Bangladesh has adopted a more participatory approach to floodplain management, piloting and then expanding new approaches; these have provided lessons that can be more general applied within Asia and beyond. Participatory planning for water and natural resource management has also been adopted at the local level. Good practices have been developed to ensure that disadvantaged, poor stakeholders can articulate their views and find consensus with other local stakeholders. The management of smaller water-control projects (up to 1,000 ha) has been taken on by community organizations, and in larger water-control projects, there is collaborative management (also called “co-management”) among a hierarchy of groups and associations and the appropriate government agency. In fishery and wetland management, many areas have been managed by community organizations to sustainably restore common resources, although their rights to do this were lost in some cases. Associated with community management are successful experiments in adopting a more system-based approach, called “integrated floodplain management,” which balances the needs of agriculture and common natural resources, for example, by adopting crops with lower water demands that are resilient to less predictable rainfall and drier winters, and enable communities to preserve surface water for wild aquatic resources. Bangladesh also has had success in demonstrating the benefits of systematic learning among networks of community organizations, which enhances innovation and adaptation to the ever-changing environmental challenges in floodplains.

Keywords: Bangladesh, floodplain, commons, fisheries, participation, embankments, livelihood