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Water Risks and Rural Development in Coastal Bangladesh  

Sonia Hoque and Mohammad Shamsudduha

Rural populations in river deltas experience multiple water risks, emerging from intersecting anthropogenic and hydroclimatic drivers of change. For more than 20 million inhabitants of coastal Bangladesh—living on the lower reaches of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna mega-delta—these water risks relate to access to safe drinking water, management of water resources for farm-based livelihoods, and protection from water-related hazards. To address these risks, water policies in the 20th century emphasized infrastructure development, ranging from embankments for flood protection to handpumps for rural water supply. However, interventions designed to promote aggregate economic growth often resulted in sociospatial inequalities in risk distribution, particularly when policy-makers and practitioners failed to recognize the complex dynamics of human–environment interactions in the world’s most hydromorphologically active delta. In Bangladesh’s southwestern region, construction of the polder system (embanked islands interlaced with tidal rivers) since the late 1960s has augmented agricultural production by protecting low-lying land from diurnal tidal action and frequent storm surges. However, anthropogenic modification of the natural hydrology, emulating the Dutch dyke system, has altered the sedimentation patterns and resulted in severe waterlogging since the 1980s. Contrary to their intended purpose of keeping saline water out, the polders also facilitated growth of export-oriented brackish water shrimp aquaculture, resulting in widespread environmental degradation and social inequalities from shifting power dynamics between large and small landholding farmers. Throughout the 1990s, there were several incidences of violent conflicts between the local communities and government authorities, as well as between different farmer groups. Waterlogged communities demanded to revert to indigenous practices of controlled flooding. Despite being formally adopted as a policy response, the implementation of tidal river management by the government has only been partially successful owing to bureaucratic delays, unfair compensation, and design flaws. Similarly, antishrimp movements gained momentum in several polders to ban the deliberate flooding of cropland with saline water. These narratives of conflict and cooperation demonstrate the complexities of policy outcomes, the unequal distribution of water risks, and the need to integrate local knowledge in decision-making. Social and spatial inequalities are also prevalent in access to safe drinking water owing to heterogeneity in groundwater salinity and infrastructure investments. Public investments are skewed toward low-salinity areas where tubewells are feasible, while high-salinity areas are often served by uncoordinated donor investments in alternative technologies, such as small piped schemes, reverse osmosis plants, and pond sand filters, and household self-supply through shallow tubewells and rainwater harvesting. These struggles to meet daily water needs from multiple sources pose uncertain and unequal water quality and affordability risks to coastal populations. The path-dependent sequences of infrastructure and institutional interventions that shaped the development trajectory of coastal Bangladesh exemplify the complexities of managing water risks and varied responses by public and private actors. While structural solutions still dominate the global water policy discourse, there is increased recognition of the nonlinearity of risks and responses, as well as the need to incorporate adaptive decision-making processes with room for social learning and uncertainties.