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Parvin Sultana and Paul Thompson

Floodplains are ecologically diverse and important sources of livelihood for rural people. Bangladesh is one of the most floodplain-dominated countries and supports the highest density of rural population in the world. The experience of Bangladesh in floodplain management efforts provides evidence, lessons, and insights on a range of debates and advances in the management of floodplain natural resources, the challenges of climate change, and the role of local communities in sustaining these resources and thereby their livelihoods. Although floodplain areas are primarily used for agriculture, the significance and value of wild common natural resources—mainly fish and aquatic plants—as sources of income and nutrition for floodplain inhabitants has been underrecognized in the past, particularly with respect to poorer households. For example, capture fisheries—a common resource—have been adversely impacted by the building of embankments and sluice gates and by the conversion of floodplains into aquaculture farms, which also exclude poor subsistence users from wetland resources. More generally, an overreliance on engineering “solutions” to flooding that focused on enabling more secure rice cultivation was criticized, particularly in the early 1990s during the Flood Action Plan, for being top down and for ignoring some of the most vulnerable people who live on islands in the braided main rivers. Coastal embankments have also been found to have longer term environmental impacts that undermine their performance because they constrain rivers, which silt up outside these polders, contributing, along with land shrinkage, to drainage congestion. Locals responded in an innovative way by breaking embankments to allow flood water and silt deposition in to regain relative land levels. Since the early 1990s Bangladesh has adopted a more participatory approach to floodplain management, piloting and then expanding new approaches; these have provided lessons that can be more general applied within Asia and beyond. Participatory planning for water and natural resource management has also been adopted at the local level. Good practices have been developed to ensure that disadvantaged, poor stakeholders can articulate their views and find consensus with other local stakeholders. The management of smaller water-control projects (up to 1,000 ha) has been taken on by community organizations, and in larger water-control projects, there is collaborative management (also called “co-management”) among a hierarchy of groups and associations and the appropriate government agency. In fishery and wetland management, many areas have been managed by community organizations to sustainably restore common resources, although their rights to do this were lost in some cases. Associated with community management are successful experiments in adopting a more system-based approach, called “integrated floodplain management,” which balances the needs of agriculture and common natural resources, for example, by adopting crops with lower water demands that are resilient to less predictable rainfall and drier winters, and enable communities to preserve surface water for wild aquatic resources. Bangladesh also has had success in demonstrating the benefits of systematic learning among networks of community organizations, which enhances innovation and adaptation to the ever-changing environmental challenges in floodplains.


Alexandra Dehnhardt, Kati Häfner, Anna-Marie Blankenbach, and Jürgen Meyerhoff

All types of wetlands around the world are heavily threatened. According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, they comprise “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish, or salt.” While they are estimated still to cover 1,280 million hectares worldwide, large shares of wetlands were destroyed during the 20th century, mainly as a result of land use changes. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), this applies above all to North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but wetlands were also heavily degraded in other parts of the world. Moreover, degradation is expected to accelerate in the future due to global environmental change. These developments are alarming because wetlands deliver a broad range of ecosystem services to societies, contributing significantly to human well-being. Among those services are water supply and purification, flood regulation, climate regulation, and opportunities for recreation, to name only a few. The benefits humans derive from those services, however, often are not reflected in markets as they are public goods in nature. Thus, arguing in favor of the preservation of wetlands requires, inter alia, to make the non-marketed economic benefits more visible and comparable to those from alternative—generally private—uses of converted wetlands, which are often much smaller. The significance of the non-market value of wetland services has been demonstrated in the literature: the benefits derived from wetlands have been one of the most frequently investigated topics in environmental economics and are integrated in meta-analyses devoted to synthesizing the present knowledge about the value of wetlands. The meta-analyses that cover both different types of wetlands in different landscapes as well as different geographical regions are supplemented by recent primary studies on topics of increasing importance such as floodplains and peatlands, as they bear, for example, a large flood regulation and climate change mitigation potential, respectively. The results underpin that the conversion of wetlands is accompanied by significant losses in benefits. Moreover, wetland preservation is economically beneficial given the large number of ecosystem services provided by wetland ecosystems. Thus, decision-making that might affect the status and amount of wetlands directly or indirectly should consider the full range of benefits of wetland ecosystems.


The study of West Africa has contributed to the expansion of comparative arid-lands floodplain prehistory, from both the data collection (cultural and historical) and the theoretical aspects. The neoevolutionary approach that often pictures Africa as a backward continent has been successfully challenged. In the Middle Senegal Valley and in the Inland Niger Delta, research on their societies’ complexity done along these two subcontinent’s floodplains has described new processes (including urbanization) that were not previously featured in the archaeological literature. The two floodplains, because of their ecological diversity, with the richness of their ecological diversity, attracted Saharan populations affected by drought at the end of the second millennium and the first millennium BC. However, after their initiation occupation the two areas took different trajectories in complexity and settlement organization. Large complex settlements have been found at Jenne-jeno and in the Ile a Morphil that illustrate whole new trajectories of civilization. These forms of complexity, found in areas with historically known polities, were not included in the range of possibilities predicted by standard complexity theories regarding civilizational development. Ethnographic and historical data, reveal the existence of societies with a central authority embedded within and balanced by a diffuse, segmented and heterarchical power structure; often as a strategy to resist the individual consolidation of power. These societies exhibit evidence of horizontal differentiation and consensus-based decision making. All these types of organization are characterized by the presence of several sources of power vested in corporate entities, such as lineages, age groups, cults and secret societies.



Gregory S. Aldrete

In classical history and mythology, floods frequently appear in both negative and positive contexts, serving as a force for destruction and retribution, but also for growth and renewal. Floods are inextricably linked with foundational aspects of civilization and urbanization, most notably in connection with irrigation and agriculture, but they also constitute a leading form of natural disaster that can result in widespread devastation and loss of life.The role of cataclysmic floods in the mythologies, legends, and religions of numerous ancient civilizations is well known, as are the many similarities among these narratives, such as floods being sent as divine punishment, an inundation being used to delineate the end of an era, a chosen figure who receives warning of the impending disaster and constructs a watercraft, and the subsequent repopulation of the world by a small group of survivors. Prominent examples include Mesopotamian versions such as the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the biblical account of Noah, and, in the Classical era, the legends of Deucalion, Ogyges, and Dardanus.