The Dutch delta expertise in the eyes of a Bangladeshi researcher

Shahnoor Hasan follows up the conversation on “Delta Dynamics: Dutch masterplans and SDGs” held during the conference “Critical perspectives on governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water Food and Climate”, by offering the perspective of a Bangladeshi researcher on the Dutch involvement in delta planning in Bangladesh.

Recently I was invited to talk at the conference Critical Perspectives on Governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water, Food and Climate, in the session “Delta Dynamics: Dutch masterplans and SDGs”. I was asked to present a Bangladeshi perspective on the Dutch involvement in Bangladesh delta planning. A first thing that caught my attention about the session was that it brought together a blended choice of speakers, ranging from non-Dutch researchers and activists, to Dutch ministry officials and consultants. Such a wide representation is something that I have seldom seen during my work life in the Netherlands over the past three years. At most of the occasions where I was invited to present my research, I found myself to be the only speaker coming from what some school of thoughts on global development call the Global South. I would also be one of the few female speakers in the predominant male arena of delta planning, comparatively young in age. My gender, less grey-hair and the adequate amount of melanin in skin (read a specific skin tone) thus would make me stand out from what apparently is the normal Dutch delta crowd.

Two perspectives of audience at the “Delta Dynamics: Dutch masterplans and SDGs” (Photo: Jaap Evers)

In talking about delta planning in Bangladesh, I (re)realize that I cannot separate my intertwined identity and position of being both a Bangladeshi and a researcher enrolled in a Dutch university. This is why I decided to instead use my personal concerns and research observations as a source of inspiration for my talk on the transfer of Dutch delta planning expertise from the Netherlands to Vietnam and to my home country, Bangladesh.

The way Dutch delta knowledge is promoted and transferred makes me a bit sceptical. One of my concerns comes from how the accounts of Dutch delta knowledge implicitly and in promotional texts explicitly make certain ways of representing a delta universal. These accounts make it seem as if deltas across the world are the same because of their similar biophysical and hydrological features. They suggest that all deltas face comparable problems and need common solutions. In this way of describing deltas, the way the Dutch have been knowing their water and their own delta is privileged as the more established and successful, with the Netherlands figuring as superior in terms of delta management.

Some may say that this is justified, because of the long, impressive history the Netherlands has of battling against water, living with water and organizing complex decision making processes around contested water issues. I am not so sure, because this way of promoting Dutch delta planning expertise as better or more advanced tends to eclipse other possibly relevant form of knowledge. I will explain this by sharing two anecdotes from the Bangladesh delta planning process with you. I will then conclude with a more general reflection on the transfer of Dutch delta planning expertise.

My first anecdote comes from the Dutch promotional accounts of the Bangladesh delta planning process. When I read those accounts, I get picture that is significantly different from what I have seen, observed and heard while studying this same process from the people involved – both Dutch and Bangladeshi. The promotional texts give the impression that Bangladesh ‘needs’ a delta plan and suggest that the Bangladesh government ‘sought for’ Dutch delta knowledge. They maintain that a delta plan would support Bangladesh to ensure future water safety, food security and socioeconomic development for its staggering population of around 160 million.

These Dutch accounts, nonetheless, do not reveal that the demand for a Dutch delta plan in Bangladesh did not emerge spontaneously. Neither was this the case in Vietnam, for that matter. Rather, a tremendous amount of efforts and hard work went into making the transfer of Dutch delta planning expertise to Bangladesh happen. This work was done by designated Dutch government officials and experts, whose active efforts were needed to create interest in and support for a Dutch delta plan for Bangladesh. In these efforts, they presented the delta plan as something that could not only support Bangladesh in addressing the climate challenges that it would face, but also help strengthening its governance infrastructure and improve socioeconomic development. The wide array of Dutch support would also improve relations with international donor agencies and the neighbouring riparian country. In addition and more importantly, the delta plan would help the Bangladesh government to achieve one of its most prioritized development agendas, that is, to attain middle income country status by 2021.

I don’t know what impression this list of benefits of a delta Plan for Bangladesh creates in your minds. In my mind it raised a question: is a delta plan for Bangladesh a panacea that can solve multiple contested water problems, including the longstanding disputes around transboundary water sharing? It left me wondering what it really is that is happening in the name of transferring delta planning expertise to Bangladesh.

Do delta look all the same when seen from above? (Photo: Swarna Kazi)

My other anecdote comes from the way scenarios are used and developed in the Bangladesh delta planning exercise. Scenario development is considered a key building block for the sustainable management of deltas, according to the Dutch Delta Approach. In the Bangladesh delta planning exercise, the development of scenarios was led by a group of committed and concerned experts, mostly Dutch. An article written by this group of consultants describe scenario development for the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 as an approach to better understand the implications for future water management and to evaluate the effectiveness of strategic options under four different plausible futures.

According to their terms of reference, the expert group began the work of developing scenarios following the way the scenarios were developed in the Netherlands. In their efforts to develop scenarios that would make sense for and be accepted in Bangladesh, they had to integrate transboundary water management and land use changes in them – themes that did not figure in the Dutch scenario development. During the scenario workshop in Bangladesh, participants – mostly Bangladeshi government officials – identified transboundary water management and land use changes as crucial drivers that will influence watery and socioeconomic conditions in Bangladesh in the future. The scenarios of the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 are thus different from the Dutch scenarios, going beyond climate change and socioeconomic development.

Considering the technical inputs from the Dutch consultants (including that of the scenario development), a group of Bangladeshi macroeconomic experts were assigned with the task of writing the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100. Now, why was a group of all Bangladeshi consultants, mostly macroeconomists, appointed to write this delta plan, instead of the chosen consortium of a disparate collection of Dutch and Bangladeshi consultants? I look forward to share that story another time soon. According to the group of macroeconomists, only two scenarios made sense for delta planning in Bangladesh. First, what happens in future ‘without’ a Delta Plan? For this scenario, the macroeconomists projected the economic implications of climate change and increasing natural disasters on the country’s GDP, infrastructure development, poverty reduction and internal migration. For the second scenario, the one ‘with’ a Delta Plan, they illustrated how adaptation measures to address climate change and other delta related issues can support achieving a targeted GDP growth of 8% by 2020, which in turn can support accomplishing the envisioned middle income country status by 2030. They re-named this way of identifying plausible futures for a delta “policy options”.

If you ask the promoters of Dutch delta planning and the consultants from the designated consortium involved in the Bangladesh delta planning, they say that these two plausible futures – with or without a delta plan – are implementation strategies, rather than scenarios. If you ask the Bangladeshi government agency that the Dutch chose to partner with in the delta plan formulation project and the group of macroeconomist consultants, they instead maintain that the two plausible futures are what matters in the Bangladesh socioeconomic and political context. Their translation of scenarios into policy options serves the purpose of clearly showing the (socioeconomic) benefits of a delta plan to the policymakers. This, in their opinion, is much more useful than presenting narratives about uncertain futures that are based on ‘what happens if there is a change in selected exogenous factors’ – which is what the original idea of scenario development proposed.

Now, a lot more can be said about these different ways of perceiving scenarios in delta planning. A normative way of talking about this would be to say: the policy options are a local planning approach and the scenario development is the scientific or universal delta planning method. I think a better way of talking about and documenting this is to recognize how both approaches come from specific places and contexts. They are both local in this sense, and both have specific merits. The scenario development is useful in making uncertainty and complexity explicit in planning. This allows to facilitate water management in an adaptive manner, allowing it to better deal with and be prepared for some specific uncertain and unexpected future events. The policy options, on the other hand, by making use of economic projections, is useful to connect economic and political interests when a choice needs to be made for a delta plan.

Between the two approaches I can however see one difference. That is that the scenario development of the Dutch Delta Approach travelled to Vietnam and Bangladesh, whereas the policy options used in the Bangladesh delta planning did not travel yet. On what basis is Dutch-designed scenario development supposed to be generic enough to be of use also in Bangladesh and Vietnam? Because it is superior, or because the Netherlands has a higher GDP? We do not know yet. I think it has travelled because scenario development is recognized and is made recognizable as scientific. It travelled thanks to the active support of the Dutch government, which made scenario development a prerequisite for sustainable delta management. Also, it travelled because the transfer of Dutch delta expertise is part of the Dutch Aid and Trade policy, which sets out to realize Dutch economic interests in strategically constructed development cooperation projects, a hybrid policy about which the Dutch government openly speaks in policy documents.

To conclude, I would like to make two closely related points on the promotion and transfer of Dutch Delta knowledge as universal and dominant. First, assuming or taking the quality of the Dutch delta expertise for granted makes it difficult to appreciate the active efforts that go into representing and making Dutch delta knowledge useful elsewhere. Without recognizing this work, we will never learn how Dutch delta planning efforts in the Netherlands are different from those in other countries, as official accounts in the Dutch policy documents, promotional texts and speeches of Dutch government officials render Dutch delta planning the same across countries. These texts and talks make it seem as if Dutch delta expertise travels almost by itself, because of its intrinsic effectiveness or superiority. Second, what I observed in my research in Bangladesh and Vietnam is that the Dutch Delta expertise is not fixed, but changes in the process. In that process, both Dutch and non-Dutch experts engage with each other, learn and exchange ideas. So, a re-conceptualization of knowledge transfer that allows recognizing the efforts needed to make the transfer of Dutch delta expertise happen provides a nice entry-point for re-thinking the contents of the Dutch knowledge is transferred.

What benefit would such a re-conceptualization and rethinking bring? I think it would allow opening up for questioning the effectiveness of the Dutch Delta Approach elsewhere, providing a language to more effectively identify what characterizes the Dutch-ness of Dutch Delta Plans in other deltas. It would also create a much needed space for having more symmetrical conversations between different knowers and knowledges of delta management. My point is that not a priori privileging Dutch knowledge creates room for better recognizing and appreciating other knowledge. There are merits in recognizing that there are other relevant forms of delta knowledge, and also in recognizing that this knowledge has been produced in specific contexts for specific purposes that are useful for specific planning goals. After all, Bangladesh and Vietnam also have lived in and with deltas for centuries – and have evolved and designed their own ways of managing their deltas.


I am a PhD fellow at the Water Governance chair group in IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. My research focuses on the transfer of Dutch delta planning expertise to Bangladesh and Vietnam. To know more about the project within which I do my PhD research:

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