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FEATURE: Conflict around water infrastructure in Bangladesh’s changing climate

Jannatul Naima Moon shares the findings of an action research project on “Climate Policy, Conflicts and Cooperation in Peri-Urban South Asia: Towards Resilient and Water Secure Communities” which is co-funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in collaboration with Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Alutala sluice gate: a short history of its importance to local livelihoods

Khulna, home to around 1.3 million people in the south-western part of Bangladesh, is frequently confronted by severe water disasters including floods, storm surges, cyclones, water logging, saline intrusion, sedimentation and river erosion. Different initiatives have been taken for decades to address such problems. Alutala sluice gate at outfall of the Mayur river is a piece of water management infrastructure constructed by Bangladesh Water management Board (BWDB) in the 1980s as part of Khulna city protection embankment system. Recently, the city has been identified as one of the most vulnerable coastal cities to climate change impacts.

Our research team has been exploring the socio-technical and agro-environmental implications of the ongoing practices and changes in operation and management of Alutala sluice gate to understand how water use conflicts emerge when water infrastructure is designed and managed without taking the needs of different social groups into account.

The Mayur river originates from Beel (wetland) Pabla and Beel Dakatia, and drains into the Rupsha-Bhairab river near Alutala where the sluice gate was constructed for the protection of Khulna city from water logging and salinity intrusion. Mayur river receives water from a drainage area of about 53 square km including areas from both inside and outside of the Khulna City Corporation boundary. The riverside provides shelter for hundreds of people living on both banks, while the environment provides fresh water fisheries for all of Khulna city. This river is also protecting Khulna city from water logging during rainy season. This river provides water for irrigation for the farmers and important ecosystem services such as water for residential purposes e.g. drinking water, water for industrial and commercial purposes, fish production. The river also serves other uses beyond direct consumption: it affects land and property values, provides recreation and tourism functions, and supports flood control, biodiversity (e.g. bird habitat), reduced erosion of river banks, climate regulation, nutrient and water cycling and is shared by both the urban and peri-urban residents for various uses.

Unfortunately, the river also captures all the urban waste coming from Khulna city. The river faces severe threats from unplanned urbanisation, untreated sewage discharge and solid waste dumping. “Apart from protecting the city by controlling tidal flood, the sluice gate is creating some problems. Waste discharge from the city, especially in dry season makes the water unusable (coupled with increased salinity) and fish die,”- said Mr. Akon, a 55 year old fisherman living in Alutala.

Until 2012, the operation of the Alutala sluice gate was officially vested in the BWDB. Although there was a committee for gate operation, the process of decision making was not representative and locals claimed it was corrupted. There was no representative from the fisherman community (a major stakeholder) in the committee.

In fact, the gate’s operation was controlled by local people of influence, and often by means of illegal financial transactions – members of the community claim. The gate’s operation was mostly controlled by powerful urban elites to ensure saline water storage for their fish farms, while depriving peri-urban subsistence agriculture of freshwater sources.

This resulted in a shift in agricultural practice from rice to less water demanding crops. Now people cultivate Aman rice once in a year during rainy season. During the rest of the year they cultivate less water demanding crops such as : sesame, sour gourd and pumpkin. Female members cultivate different vegetables besides their home and they have hens and ducks, some have goats and cows which provide eggs, milk and meat for their families and milk to sell.

From BWDB’s point of view, operation of the sluice gate was being seen as a burden (i.e. budget allocation for operation and maintenance, administrative/political pressure, etc.) and was finally handed over to KCC in 2012. Field observation indicates improved level of satisfaction regarding the operation of sluice gate in comparison to the past. After responsibility was assumed by the KCC (an organisation run by elected local representatives) in 2012, the situation became favourable to the local people. This improvement is partly because of the changes favouring agriculture and partly because of the shift in agriculture to less water demanding crops. This is evident from farmers cultivating sesame, futi, sour guard, water melons, etc., which require less water. This shift in the agricultural practice is reducing the conflicts in water demand.

Climate change will put even more pressure on freshwater resources

Many of the water uses put pressure on water resources, stresses that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. In Alutala, climate change is likely to increase water demand while shrinking water supplies. This shifting balance would challenge water managers to simultaneously meet the needs of growing communities, sensitive ecosystems, farmers, and fishermen. Salinity intrusion is one of the biggest problems in the Alutala area.  These effects can reduce the quality of water and increase the competition among local communities for fresh water.

Alutala sluice gate is one example of a typical water management infrastructure in Bangladesh. The primary objective of such infrastructure is to distribute the resultant benefits (e.g. reduced water logging, water supply, etc.) among different users by controlling the flow regime. However, the stated objectives are only partially met due to scant attention paid to the need to complement the physical works with associated processes which actually determine where the water (read benefits) goes.

In the case of Alutala sluice gate, social and political power relations play important roles in distributing the benefits among local elites and transferring the detrimental project effects to the marginal communities (e.g. peri-urban farmers).

Another reason of such failure is little or no consideration of the changing environment including urbanisation and climate change. Future projections indicate that freshwater availability in the river will be further affected by salinity intrusion and sea level rise due to climate change. This is accompanied by inadequate consideration of the need for equitable distribution among different users in the design and operation of the infrastructure. Such rigidity in project design followed by subsequent ‘controlled’ operation and maintenance even emerges as a source of conflicts among the end users.

Future sustainable management efforts will need to take climate trends into account as well as forging governance arrangements for equitable and fair water use.

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