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When water management projects or interventions continued to fail to fulfil their expected long-term objectives in the south-western coastal delta in Bangladesh and, arguably, caused severe flooding (3-6 months a year) since the mid-1980s (Tutu, 2005; Kibria and Mahmud, 2010; Amir et al., 2013), management approaches had to be modified. The new direction emphasized high levels of participation and stakeholder involvement and a better use of community capacity (MoWR, 1994; Gupta et al., 2005). My thesis investigates whether this espoused shift in emphasis towards a centring of participation and learning is successful in enabling more sustainable delta management processes in the south-western coastal delta.
The south-western coastal delta is the poorest part of Bangladesh. Rural communities in this area are living with frequent natural hazards and are subject to extreme climate vulnerability (Brammer, 2014; Mutahara et al., 2013). A large portion of the area is frequently flooded, in part due to water logging and drainage congestion caused by the impact of largescale structural engineering (e.g., the creation of embankments and polders) (Rahman, 2005; Dewan et al., 2014; Nowreen et al., 2014). In this situation the practice of Tidal River Management (TRM) was initiated by local communities without support from government authorities to remove waterlogging (Tutu, 2005; Kibria, 2011). While originating in indigenous (local) knowledge, it was accepted as a state management approach and finally formalized as a novel re-interpretation of the polder concept to relieve drainage congestion, restore the tidal nature of the delta and save the agro-ecological system (EGIS I, 2001; de Die, 2013, ; Amir et al., 2013).
My PhD thesis was developed under the WOTRO-IP Dynamic Deltas project (20122017). This project included integrated studies in deltas in Bangladesh and The Netherlands on strategies to reduce flood risk and vulnerabilities, with the aim to strengthen ‘institutions of resilience’ as well as ‘resilient communities’. It also considered the TRM approach as an adaptation strategy in managing the sediment loaded delta in Bangladesh (NWO, 2011). As one of four PhDs studies in this project, my research aimed to explore and understand changes in practices, scope of learning, and the role of participation in adaptive delta water management. It focused on socio-technical innovation and capacity development in delta management and flood risk reduction in the context of strengthening TRM in a dynamic delta like Bangladesh.
A basic assumption of my research is that learning is central in shaping the capacities and outcomes of resilience in risk reduction, adaptation, and sustainable management (IPCC, 2012). Learning as an iterative process of monitoring, research, evaluation, learning, and innovation, can reduce risk and uncertainties, and promote adaptive management in the context of complex natural resource systems (Biggs et al., 2015). In this context, knowledge accumulation and stakeholder participation may help to achieve resilience, especially when combine with capacity development anchored at the local level (Rahman et al., 2017). Furthermore, learning and capacity development towards sustainable management in the perspective of a local or regional socio-ecological system change can benefit from questioning assumptions and paradigms to encourage new patterns of management responses (IPCC, 2012).
From this point of view, sustainable water and land management research increasingly focuses on the use of participatory approaches at local and regional level. In addition, in developing countries, evolving and maintaining sustainable management systems remains a challenge (United Nations, 2012). Therefore, delta management and development research in countries like Bangladesh needs to focus on learning and participatory processes to deal with challenges and deep uncertainties in the management system (Berkes, 2009). In this thesis, I have focused on Social Learning (SL) and Multi-stakeholder Partnerships (MSPs) as promising mechanisms for capacity development and linking science, policy and governance (Boogard et al., 2013).
My thesis intends to contribute to an understanding of how learning and change processes have developed (or, as the case may be, failed to develop) in adapting a delta management system, and of how multi-stakeholder approaches are utilized. The overall objective of the thesis is:
To analyse the role of participation and learning in the creation of local water management knowledge and socio-technical systems, designed to deal with flood (waterlogging) risks in vulnerable rural delta communities.
While anthropological studies give us an idea of how communities cope with adverse challenges (Duyne, 1998; Schmuck, 1999), there is little knowledge about socio-technical systems resilience and local-central links. The interaction between communities and management groups in Bangladesh has often been tense, especially where local practices are seen by outsiders as ‘deviant’ and backward (Warner, 2010). So, the gaps in interaction and
management co-ordination force local stakeholders to be self-reliant, but result in weak links with support systems, especially for the more vulnerable groups. My research was conducted on and in interaction with waterlogging affected rural communities and water management groups in the southwest delta.