A path of 'principled pragmatism' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 28, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:45 PM, January 31, 2017

A path of 'principled pragmatism'

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Star, Professor Shafiqul Islam, Director, Water Diplomacy Program, Professor of the School of Engineering and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, talks to Nahela Nowshin about the challenges of water governance.

Where does Bangladesh stand in terms of evolution of water policies and what can it learn from the global discourse?

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Integrated water resource management (IWRM) - a target of SDG 6 - has become the global mantra for water management. IWRM, conceived over 50 years ago, has become the “emperor” of the global water discourse. In clothing the metaphorical emperor, IWRM emphasises integration, decentralisation, participation, and economic sustainability. Yet, a closer look at implementation of IWRM in many regions of the world suggests that although the IWRM emperor seems to have clothes does the emperor need different clothes for different situations? What constitutes appropriate clothing and what criteria do we need to evaluate the effectiveness of clothing of the IWRM emperor?   

It appears that generic IWRM type policy interventions that many countries in Asia and Africa have adopted under the influence of global water discourse have produced doubtful outcomes. We need to ask what (and how) types of IWRM will help Bangladesh to address water problems within Bangladesh (say, community based water management in southwestern region) or between Bangladesh and India. 

The lesson Bangladesh may learn from the global experience is the gap between the principles and pragmatism of water management. There is a growing consensus that the existing global paradigm, like IWRM, neither responds well to the priorities of the small-scale water users in developing countries like Bangladesh, nor does it resonate well with local and regional conditions, which makes implementing community based participation, reforming property rights, and allocating water at basin level nearly impossible.

An analysis of different historical trajectories of water development and water management in Bangladesh as well as interactions with donors – from the abolishment of Zamindari systems in the 1950s to establishment of coastal embankment projects in the 1960s to early implementation projects of the 1980s to system rehabilitation projects of the 2000s – it appears that the project-based focus of different water institutions in Bangladesh has led to less than ideal organisational coherence and institutionalised knowledge and experience sharing across units and project offices.

Given so many challenges, how do you suggest we prioritise our resources and attention in the short-run to manage water resources most effectively?

Addressing the ever increasing supply-demand gap, providing access of water in urban slums, and developing adaptation and mitigation strategies for a changing climate – what do these three problems have in common? In a colloquial sense, these problems are complex. But, what makes these problems complex? What do we need to address these problems for actionable outcome?

Complex problems – addressing supply-demand gap in the dry season in southwestern region or providing equitable access of water in the slums of Dhaka or creating sustainable development pathways for a growing population in a changing climate – are connected with many competing and often conflicting values, interests, and tools. These problems can't be addressed either by dogmatic principles or by deal-making pragmatism.

We need to recognise that because these problems are interconnected and interdependent, the solution can't be pre-specified. Any intervention will require an attention to both principles and pragmatism. Principle without pragmatism is often not actionable; pragmatism without principle is not sustainable.

We need to continually assess the context of the problem with a goal in mind: to logically order principles to best achieve them in practice. There are issues like agriculture versus aquaculture in the southwest that are subjected to deal-making while others like sustainability of Sundarbans or equitable access of water to local community are not.

Not all principles need to be equally important in all situations. Yet, principles are important and can't be ignored completely irrespective of contexts. If we do, we fall into the slippery slope of end justifying the means. When we say, we will not compromise our principles to explain our opposition to a public policy, we are confounding two meanings of compromise. A pragmatic compromise – a settlement of differences in interests – is not the same as compromising one's guiding principles.  Compromise over interests is possible and actionable while compromise over principles is not sustainable.

Each context should lead us to reconsider which of our guiding principles – commitment to a sustainable water future and equitable access to water – to privilege and which to temporarily subordinate. The result is an effective integration of realism and idealism that we may call principled pragmatism.

This notion of principled pragmatism is what we need to address complex problems of our time. For example, water availability during the dry season may be the limiting factor to ensure access to water for rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh. Mismatches between values, choice of tools, and disparity in scales usually make water management decisions complex with no clear-cut solution.

In such situations, a principled pragmatic approach – that can address mismatch between values (Is water more important to keep a port functional than sustaining the Sundarbans?) or choice of tools (Is building the Ganges barrage better than implementing high efficiency irrigation systems?) – grounded in translating global norms in terms of local understanding and the capacity to act on them is our way forward.

Decision-making is highly centralised in Bangladesh where there are only a few entities that deal with water resource management. What are some ways we can empower organisations at the local level?

Given the informal nature of water economy, power inequalities and domination of elite interests at the local level decentralisation of decision-making and operations and maintenance of water projects through local government institutions - as opposed to through independently commissioned water management organisations - is likely to be more sustainable in Bangladesh. Many water infrastructure development efforts over the last several decades have entered into this so-called “build-neglect-rebuild” cycle – to cite a few regional examples in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India. The key issue is to recognise that working only through public sector organisations, this cycle will most likely continue because they can't provide sufficient resources to operate and maintain these projects over time. To exit this cycle, Bangladesh needs to adopt a systematic approach where resources are made available only if investment design includes continuous capacity building through learning by doing, and post-investment monitoring protocols for adaptive maintenance.

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