Bangladesh is moving ahead with a project to formulate the Delta Plan 2100. Apparently, this is a good idea. After all, Bangladesh is primarily a delta, and a long term plan for its land and water use may well be called “Delta Plan 2100” to emphasise its long term nature. However, there are many questions about the way this plan is being formulated. Two important questions: after forty-five years of independence and sixty years of water development experience why does Bangladesh need a delta plan formulation process that is heavily dependent on foreign advice and financing? Second, is the Dutch experience most relevant for formulation of the delta plan for Bangladesh? We consider below these two questions very briefly.
With respect to the first question, it may be noted that Bangladesh already has the disappointing experience of foreign-led water development strategy. In the fifties, a commission led by Mr. Krug of US Army Corps of Engineers was invited to Bangladesh to advice on its water development strategy. Following that commission's report, in the early sixties the International Engineering Co. (IEC) prepared a master plan, containing a list of twenty-seven projects. The water development efforts of the country for the next six decades have basically been directed toward implementation of the projects of that master plan. The basic philosophy behind the Krug Commission's report and the Master Plan has been the “Cordon Approach” to rivers, according to which the floodplains and tidal plains are to be cordoned off from surrounding rivers by constructing uninterrupted embankments. This philosophy ignores the fundamental fact that in a delta the floodplains (also the tidal plains) are organically connected with the river channels, so that these two cannot be separated without causing harm to both. Foreign consultants who dominated the Krug commission and IEC were mostly from countries in which deltas are not that important (such as in the United States), so that they did not quite understand the reality of a delta.
The ill effects of the Cordon approach are now everywhere to see. It has led to promotion of below-flood-level settlement, aggradation of river bed, subsidence of flood and tidal plains, deterioration of the water bodies inside the floodplains, disruption of open capture fisheries, diminution of waterways, reduced recharge of groundwater table, and most importantly ubiquitous waterlogging. The Dhaka-Narayanganj-Demra (DND) project – the showcase of the Cordon approach – provides an example of these effects. Meanwhile, the promised surface water irrigation potential of the Cordon projects generally failed to materialize, and expansion of irrigation was almost completely taken over by tube-well irrigation, for which Cordons were mostly unnecessary, if not a hindrance. (For details, see the author's book Let the Delta Be a Delta!)
Given this sorry experience why again turn to foreign assistance for formulating the delta plan of Bangladesh? It may be said that while the Krug Commission and the Master Plan were dominated by experts who had less knowledge about deltas, the current Delta Plan is formulated with technical assistance and financing of the Dutch, who have better knowledge of delta, because their country – the Netherlands - is also primarily a delta formed by the Rhine River and its distributaries. This brings us to the second question above, namely how appropriate is the Dutch experience for Bangladesh's delta plan? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is: “not much.” This is because of the following.
Not all deltas are the same, and the conditions of the Rhine delta are entirely different from those of Bangladesh delta. The annual volume of the Rhine flow (75 cubic kilometre) is only 7.2 percent of the combined flow of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra (1032 cubic kilometre). If the Meghna flow is included, this ratio will likely be less than five percent. Thus, there is no comparison between the volumes of flows of the rivers of these two deltas.
Second, there is a striking difference in the seasonality of the river flows in the two deltas. The figure below shows that most of the “rainfall” in Bangladesh is concentrated in the four months (June-September). By contrast, the rainfall in the Netherlands is almost evenly distributed across the all months of the year. The difference in seasonality in “river flows” will be greater than in rainfall, because the rivers carry not only the rainfall within Bangladesh but also of the entire catchment area of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Rivers, 92.6 percent of which lies outside Bangladesh.
As a result of the low volume and absence of seasonality, the Dutch could resort to the Cordon approach to their rivers. That is why, during the FAP debate in the wake of the 1988 flood, the Dutch experts supported the dangerous French proposal of double-embanking all major rivers of Bangladesh. Clearly, the Dutch are yet to understand that what is needed in Bangladesh is the “Open approach” to rivers that preserves, extends, and makes the best use of the organic connection between the river channels and floodplains. In parentheses, it may be noted that the Dutch are realising belatedly the shortcomings of the Cordon approach and the benefits of the Open approach. They have recently taken up, what is popularly known as the “Room for Rivers” project, under which parts of floodplain are now opened up for river overflows.
Apart from water volume and seasonality, another important difference between the Rhine delta and Bengal delta is in the amount of sediment. Partly because the Himalayas are a younger mountain range than the Alps, the rivers bring to Bangladesh about 1.5 to 2.0 billion tonnes of sediment annually. By comparison, the annual amount of sediment brought down by the Rhine is 2.7 million tonnes only (less than a day's amount in Bangladesh). There is therefore no vigorous land accretion process in the Rhine delta. Hence, the Dutch had to resort to reclamation of land from under the sea level, so that now about 28 percent of the area of the Netherlands is below the sea-level, containing about one-fifth of the population. The danger of this situation is getting worse with the rising sea level caused by global warming. By contrast, vigorous delta formation has led to net accretion of 1,882 hectares of land annually between 1973 and 2000 in Bangladesh. Thus Bangladesh does not need to replicate the Dutch experience of reclamation of land from under the sea-level. Bangladesh is fortunate to have natural extension of land above the sea level.
In view of the above, it is hardly reassuring that the current Delta Plan is being prepared under the Dutch guidance. Moreover, the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Bangladesh, the Dutch and the World Bank suggest that the whole project is again likely to be dominated by a similar cast of experts as was the case with the Krug commission and IEC Master Plan.
The Bangladesh Delta Plan should be prepared under Bangladesh finance and leadership of Bangladeshi experts. If Bangladesh can finance Padma Bridge from its own resources, it can very well find the relatively small amount necessary to prepare the Delta Plan. Also, Bangladesh now has enough national expertise to analyse closely its vast experience of water development and formulate a delta plan that conforms to the indigenous intricacies of land, water, people, history, and culture. More importantly, formulation of the delta plan should not be viewed as the task of a closed group of “experts”. It has to be a process of open public dialogue, in which the common people can participate on an equal footing with others.
The writer is Global Coordinator, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN). E-mail: email@example.com