A masterclass on Urbanizing Deltas of the World

From 15 September to 6 October, the NWO-Urbanizing Deltas of the World Program organized an online masterclass on the state of the art of water research in South and Southeast Asia. The masterclass series showed how deltas are studied from multiple perspectives by multiple disciplines. Here we share some of the lessons learnt.

Screenshot of Q&A during masterclass 3, with Vo Thi Minh Hoang, Umme Kulsum, and Jaap Evers

Getting grip on sinking, shrinking and saltier deltas

Philip Minderhoud and Sepehr Eslami, who both worked in the NWO-UDW project Rise and Fall, presented their lessons learned on studying the Mekong Delta from a geo-hydro-morphological perspective in the first masterclass: Getting grip on sinking, shrinking and saltier deltas. In simple terms, they studied what happens with soil levels, groundwater levels and quality, influenced by human activities in and upstream of the delta, in this rapidly changing Mekong delta. In their work they both show how the Mekong Delta is sinking mostly due to groundwater abstraction, but also how upstream dam development has trapped sediments to be unable to replenish the delta with soil (causing it to shrink). The sinking and shrinking, and deepening of canals and rivers to support navigation and flow, enabling salt water intrusion. But, how to get grip on this process of sinking and shrinking and saltier deltas?

Philip Minderhoud showing soil subsidence at a pumping station in the Mekong Delta during his fieldwork (Source: Philip Minderhoud)

The first lesson here is that these processes are human induced (unsurprisingly), so that also means that we need to focus on human behavior and needs. It was good to learn that soil subsidence is being seen as an urgent problem. Up till 2013 (delivery of Mekong Delta Plan) there was not much data on it, even the elevation maps of the Mekong delta were incorrect (the delta appeared to be much lower than mapped). This has changed, good data is generated (amongst others by Philip and Sepehr, but many more also contributed to this effort). It results in an awareness of the spatial variability of certain production systems being overexploitating natural resources (in this case groundwater and sand), and that sustainable development can mean a downscaling of human activities in certain areas or a conversion to less consumptive land use systems in order to maximize sediment intake and limit the use of groundwater. Sepehr and Philip both argued that understanding this problem and coming to solution (recovering the negative trend of soil subsidence) requires understanding the system in which it takes place. Part of that understanding is in the understanding of soil (subsidence) in deltas as a hydro-geomorphological dynamic system in which human interventions take place over time and space; dams and reservoirs, sand mining and dredging, and groundwater abstraction. And we see these three elements influence soil subsidence in many deltas around the world. Yet, at the same time this can also deflect the responsibility that delta inhabitants, users, and governments need to take themselves, especially like in the case of the Mekong delta the upstream is in other countries and it is easy to call your local problems a result of activities upstream or to salt water intrusion a consequence of sea level rise and climate change (caused mostly by others). Much of the soil subsidence is a direct consequence of local human activities and thus much action to prevent soil subsidence can be taken by local action.

People and polders: complex dynamic human-water systems

In the second masterclass Thinking about complex urbanizing deltas, Sanchayan Nath (NWO-UDW Living Polders) and Badrul Hasan (NWO-UDW Delta-MAR) took us to the local level and showed us how communities live, deal and relate to the everchanging Ganges-Brahmaputra delta of Bangladesh. Sanchayan explored the mental models of stakeholders of socio-hydrological systems, or simply said: how do people living in polders think about or view the environment they are living in? Badrul looked in to community management systems of drinking water in polders.

Sanchayan explored the different views of people living in polders on two types of polder management. First, a traditional polder management; keeping the polder dry, and drain excessive water for agricultural production. Second, tidal river management; inundation of the polder (or beel) with salt tidal water to let the sediment flow in and sink and elevate the soil, flush the salt, and use the polder for agriculture (inundation, sedimentation, and flushing requires several years). One of the many interesting elements of the mental models was presented around flooding. In a traditional polder perspective, flooding is something to prevent, embankments are created to secure agricultural production in the polder. While in the tidal river management mental model flooding, now named inundation, is regarded as something positive. But only in how far people are actually affected by polder or tidal river management. Meaning that people who are benefitting will have a positively termed mental model of either polder or tidal river management, and people who do not benefit will have negative mental models of these systems (than inundation becomes flooding again). Finally, we also discussed the role of shrimp aquaculture in relation to both systems, which is often highly resource depleting, increasing salt intrusion, and increasing inequalities between the rich and poor.

Sanchayan Nath (right) in discussion with representatives in a focus group discussion (source: Living Polders project)

In the second part of this Masterclass (recorded one week later due to technicalities during the live stream), Badrul focused in his research on managed aquifer recharge for drinking water supply in polders. It is obvious in relation to the previous that salt water intrusion is an issue for safe water access when the main source of drinking water is shallow groundwater. Badrul said this lack of access to safe drinking water is a crisis of governance (and dysfunctional management). He looked further into the concept of community management plus (CM+). Community management (without plus) evolved around the observation that -local- governments or public agencies alone failed in providing communities safe drinking water. However, community management alone also often did not result in satisfying results, hence communities need support from public agencies and NGOs in management; community management plus. There are hardly any studies done to identify prerequisites of the CM+ model.

Badrul Hasan interviewing a woman about managing her water resource
(Source: Badrul Hasan)

Badrul showed that smaller is not always better (which is often portrayed in community management concepts). Communities which are -too- small often tend to have very little resources and human capacities to manage the drinking water systems properly. It requires a larger community, and its larger diversity to acquire sufficient resources and human capacities (not just labour and money, but diversity in skills). Larger communities have more diverse skills and capacities and therefore are more able to make community management plus modes of management more successful. He also showed that peoples’ preferences for certain water supply systems is related to their experiences, simply said people tend to want what they know (“we have always used pond water”), if the “plus” is able to align with the local preference it is more likely to have support for collective action. This is an important message to NGOs and public agencies; as it means there are no panaceas and that an institutional fit means a local fit to the sociological (and physical) context.

To adapt, to innovate for a sustainable delta future

In the third masterclass: Adapting and innovating for managing and developing deltas, Umme Kulsum (NWO-UDW project: Adaptive delta management: development, acculturation, and dissemination in Bangladesh and Indonesia) and Vo Thi Minh Hoang (NWO-UDW project: Strengthening strategic delta planning processes in Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Vietnam and beyond) took the audience into adaptive planning and management, adaptation pathways, and the role of (field level/land use) innovations in long term planning for a sustainable delta. Adaptive delta management is an innovative planning approach that aims to take uncertainty (mostly of climate change) seriously into account in planning for a sustainable future. Some of the key features of this planning philosophy are to balance over- and underspending, and to plan for actions that need to be implemented now in balance with future options that can be implemented later. The implementation of future options should not be based on fixed timelines, but on the changes of the environment (e.g. sea level rise, “we will elevate the dykes with another meter, when the sea level has risen with 50cm”, rather than in ten years from now we start with raising the dykes). As a result, policy advisors develop adaptation pathways that need to support decision-makers in being adaptive in managing the delta towards a sustainable future. Delta planning and management happens mostly at higher levels of policy making (e.g. ministries, national water authority). How local communities respond (change their behavior) to higher level policies can differ quite a bit from what was expected by policy makers. This is where Umme’s work comes in, to contribute to develop an approach to explore community livelihood adaptation choices as an uncertainty in the support of adaptive delta planning and management. Umme’s work connects adaptation pathways with community livelihood adaptation and with the actor-based motivations and abilities framework (MOTA). Combining these frameworks enabled her to develop cognitive maps to illustrate implementation (gaps) of the BDP 2100 policy strategy. In the end, when local communities do not respond as planned, there is not much adaptation going on.

Umme Kulsum (second person in the circle from the right) developing a mental map with community members of polder 30 (Source: Umme Kulsum)

At the same time this is also where Hoang’s work meets Umme’s, as she studied the role of innovations in shaping (higher level) strategic delta plans, and foster consent among stakeholders (local to high level) on sustainable delta development. She presented lotus farming as an innovation in the upper Mekong delta. Lotus farming was practiced since the late 1970s in areas unsuitable for rice production (which was the policy of the national government to be food secure and to never have a famine again). Lotus farming can now be regarded as an innovation as these areas formerly unsuitable for rice in the meantime turned into rice production areas, but many of these areas are becoming more unsuitable for rice production, and lotus has the potential to become a good option for farmer to produce. Related to studies of social construction of technology she highlighted the need for engagement of many actors to the innovation to become adopted broadly. An important element observed to be missing in the case studied by Hoang is that the private sector (food processing industry of lotus seeds) has not emerged as an engaged actor by developing also a stable market for lotus seeds and products. This shows also how sustainable development, climate change adaptation and adaptive management are dependent on mainstreaming innovations in multiple policy domains and depending on autonomous stakeholders in adopting these plans.

Vo Thi Minh Hoang (right) interviewing a farmer  in the Mekong delta
(Source: Vo Thi Minh Hoang)

Both Umme and Hoang show light on the interrelation between high-level -strategic/adaptive- delta planning and local adoption, adaptation, translation and innovations. Finally, local adaptation does not happen by official policy plans, we already know that many local adaptation and innovations happen, but just starting conversations on innovations and policy options, can also trigger changes at the local level. An important message both Umme and Hoang shared is that there is a lot of knowledge at the communities, as they are observing changes in their environment, on what options they have to adapt. But adaptation and innovations take time, and some changes are so potentially disruptive and fast that communities need support to be able to adapt and innovate faster.

Rethinking delta knowledge and moving (forward)

In the previous masterclasses the presenters showed issues of the biophysical delta, the complex human-water (polder) delta, the delta as a unit of planning and a place of innovations. It was already clear by masterclass 4 that we can understand delta in many ways. In masterclass 4: Rethinking delta knowledge and moving forward, Ruknul Ferdous (NWO-UDW project: Hydro-Social Deltas) and Shahnoor Hasan (NWO-UDW project: Strengthening strategic delta planning processes in Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Vietnam and beyond), presented their work.

Ferdous, whose work living with floods in the Jamuna floodplain; fight or flight focuses on human-water relations in flood management, presented us Mr. Abdul Baki Khan, a 60 year old man living in the Jamuna floodplain. Mr. Abdul had to move his house, or his location of living, almost every 3 years since 1980 as a result from the changing flows of the river. One of the questions raised by Ferdous is: is Mr. Abdul coping or adapting – is he fleeing or fighting the water. It relates to the remark that sometimes is made by Dutch officials involved in the Dutch-Bangladesh international water and development cooperation relation that Bangladeshi are very resilient to dealing with floods and disasters (read for instance Interview; This ambassador praises resilience of Bangladeshis). Yet, Ferdous shows how Mr. Abdul is trapped and unable to join in the economic growth his country is realizing; the gap between the urban and the rural poor living in and at the rivers and coast is widening. The rural poor including Mr. Abdul are just coping. A positive note to this internal migration of people living in and around these rivers, is that resettlement comes with little conflict and Ferdous recognizes that migration is a community effort. But overall these people are getting poorer and are less able to make further adjustments to the next flooding event. This is important when we realize that Mr. Abdul had moved almost every 3 years in the past, and with climate change it is expected that Mr. Abdul will move even more often. He is now coping, but needing to move -or flee- more frequently will push him downwards (or to the city).

Ferdous finalized that we tend to tell ourselves that we are adapting. But we often aren’t. The Bangladeshi need to fight and flee. But the communities cannot do this alone; for fighting and adapting to climate change the communities need the government. And people are changing, adjusting their lives to a changing climate, like changing in cropping patters, and this is often called adapting. But this change is not resulting in better lives. So, is it adapting and moving forward?

Shahnoor Hasan presented her work on transferring the Dutch Delta Approach from the Netherlands to Bangladesh. She started of with another “delta migrant”, the prime minister of The Netherlands travelling the world, and shared quotes of his speeches in Vietnam, Colombia, and the USA on how the Dutch are the world’s leader in water and delta management. In her research Shahnoor showed how the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach to other countries (in particular Vietnam and Bangladesh) is very different from the stories presented by the Dutch government in official speeches and documents. The Dutch government created a story that deltas around the world are very similar (rather than very different), and that the Dutch have a solution and the knowledge and expertise for adapting and safely manage a delta; the Dutch Delta Approach. Shahnoor shows that deltas are very different (rather than the same), both in biophysical characteristics and in planning and management cultures and ambitions. She thus proposes not to promote a single solution, but a learning process which she coined as a symmetrical conversation. A symmetrical conversion recognizes and appreciates the differences and the existences of multiple ways of knowing the delta. This does not mean that Dutch delta expertise and knowledge is irrelevant for Bangladesh. But it highlights that Dutch delta expertise and knowledge needs to be translated by Bangladeshi (and Dutch and others alike) to be meaningful for planning and management of the Bangladesh delta. She showed that this is not new. This is actually already happening between the professionals who are engaged in the process. The Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 is something completely different than the Dutch Delta Plan or the Mekong Delta Plan. Shahnoor shows that the narrative of the Dutch government of how the Dutch delta plan travels does not do credit to work of the involved people in making the transfer (the translation actually) possible. The hope is that recognizing the planning for deltas as a symmetrical conversation creates room for opening up what good policies are for different deltas and rethinking the relations between recognized knowers (the Netherlands as the water leader) and lesser recognized knowers (lesser economically developed countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam as recognized by the Dutch government). Recognizing that all countries are delta knowers opens up the possibility for mutual learning, as also the Netherlands, alike Bangladesh and Vietnam, does not have all the answers on how to sustainably and adaptively manage and strategically develop its own delta. Alike the Dutch Delta Approach appeared something that is fluid, the Dutch need to rethink their own delta (as they have been doing in the past).

The Mekong Delta seen through the lens of a Bangladeshi researcher studying in the Netherlands (Source: Shahnoor Hasan)

Final thoughts…

In quite some of the comments from the participants in the comment boxes on either Facebook or YouTube (the two locations where we live-streamed the masterclasses) it came to questions or remarks that relate to: Is delta planning something technical or something political? It is both, but also portraying it as technical is political, because it supports certain interests and promotes certain paradigms of how we think what knowledge (whose knowledge) is more relevant than others. But regarding it as purely political denies also the efforts of professionals to work in collegiality and mutual learning in understanding the delta as a socio-ecological-technical-complex and to propose ways forward based on identification of real problems, facts, rigorous analysis, and independent research.

In the masterclass series we saw that we can know deltas from many perspectives and all this knowledge is relevant in understanding a bit of the dynamics that shape a delta and how deltas are shaping societies. It was great to see that by offering the masterclasses on two different platforms we reached two different communities. On YouTube we had the registered participants (mostly from South and Southeast Asia and the Netherlands), and on Facebook we saw mostly IHE alumni from other places of the world (mostly from the African continent and Middle Eastern region).

It was a very interesting series in which we appreciated the contributions from all speakers very much. It highlights the importance of programs like the NWO-Urbanizing Deltas of the World, in contributing to develop relevant knowledge to support a sustainable development of our planet. It was our ambition to give these researchers, who mostly are at the beginning of an academic career, a podium to share their knowledge and to make others aware of their relevant insights. With this we are thus looking forward to seeing these researchers become even more relevant, inspirational and impactful in their domains and in contributing to a sustainable development of our deltas worldwide.

Urbanising Delta of the World (UDW) is a joint activity of the NWO thematic focus areas Water and Climate and Connecting Sustainable Cities (VerDus). The programme is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment and various NWO divisions. The programme receives strategic support from the Netherlands Water Partnership and the Knowledge for Climate programme.


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