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Leoni Cuelenaere was the Dutch Ambassador to Bangladesh for the past 3 years. Her tenure ended this summer. Nextblue interviewed Cuelenaere about her collaboration with Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh Delta Plan and major contributions by the Dutch Water Sector.

Northeastern Bangladesh during the monsoon. Photo: Niels van den Berge

Bangladesh seems to always come across badly in the news coverage. After the collapse of a large garments factory in 2013 and a terror attack three years later, another thought popped up in our minds: wait a minute, this is also the country where only decades ago, hundreds of thousands of people died due to a cyclone and floods.

Have the Bangladeshis, who, if we were to rely on mainstream news are surrounded by disasters, found answers to the rising waters? Because it is clear that water is a major challenge for the country: Bangladesh is part of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, the largest delta in the world: with no less than 700 rivers, that swell enormously during the rainy season.

We are curious and ask Leoni Cuelenaere, until recently the Dutch Ambassador to Bangladesh, about it. She is happy to tell us more about the country that impressed her. The country that she wishes well, because she saw with her own eyes how helpless, but also how resilient people are just after the floods.

During our conversation she refers several times to the resilience of people and communities. Before we start, Cuelenaere first introduces her colleague Peter de Vries, water expert at the Dutch Embassy in Bangladesh.

The collaboration on water between Bangladesh and the Netherlands goes back a long way. What are the major results?

‘It all started in 1955’, Cuelenaere explains. ‘Just after the flood disaster of 1953, the Ambassador of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) asked the Netherlands whether their engineers could come here to gain experience. IHE Delft, the knowledge institute for water, emerged from this early collaboration. Today, still many Bangladeshi engineers study water management in Delft.’

Hence, the 1953 flood disaster and Dutch Delta Works that followed, laid the foundation for the intense collaboration today. In 2014, Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina asked the Netherlands for support again. This time Bangladesh requested joint development of a delta plan to protect the country against floods and to secure sufficient fresh water.

The Bangladesh Delta Plan can be compared with the Dutch Delta Plan, developed by the Commission Veerman in 2008. The goals in both delta plans are the same: safe, climate resilient and economically strong deltas. Though there is also a major difference and it is called population density: The population of Bangladesh grows with 2 million people every year. It is expected that the Delta Plan 2100, as it is officially called, will very soon be formally adopted by the Bangladesh government. The Dutch will continue to provide technical assistance during its implementation.

‘It is the crowning glory of the long-standing collaboration between Bangladesh and the Netherlands’, says Cuelenaere. ‘As I myself was born and raised below sea level in the province of Zeeland, I find it extra special. We too had to pull out all the stops to protect our delta. We now apply these Dutch lessons learned in close collaboration with our Bangladeshi colleagues, for example by appointing a Delta Commissioner, who annually approves the Delta Programme, which will be funded from a Delta Fund.’

According to Cuelenaere there is a great need for this plan, because villages often get washed away in the coastal zones and agricultural land becomes infertile due to salinisation and waterlogging. ‘In the coming decades extreme weather events, salinisation and water challenges will only increase.’

What are the differences between the Delta Plans of Bangladesh and the Netherlands?

De Vries: ‘Here in Bangladesh water management is differently organised. In the Netherlands we have water boards; organisations which over the centuries got their own mandates and financial resources. The government of Bangladesh works together with local, voluntary groups of water users that manage water resources in their villages, sub districts and districts. Strengthening the capacity of these local water management groups is an important priority in our projects here.’

Farmers near Khulna talk about the water challenges in their village. Photo: Joep Janssen

Two-way process

Exchange of knowledge and experience is increasingly becoming a two-way process between Dutch and Bangladeshi water experts.

Cuelenaere: ‘Dutch organisations that are active in the Bangladeshi water sector realise more and more often that they are not only bringing knowledge, but they also gain new experience here. We can apply the knowledge and experience on complex water challenges, which we acquire here in the largest delta of the world, in other deltas too.’

Donor darling

Despite the positive results, there is also criticism on the collaboration. According to some water and development experts, Bangladeshi institutions and other local organisations rely too much on donors. According to them, successive projects are filling in the holes, but do not structurally strengthen the water management institutions in Bangladesh.

Take the Bangladesh Water Development Board for example, which is responsible for infrastructural water works. For routine maintenance and construction of dikes and sluices, they too often have to rely on project financing provided by the central government or foreign aid. ‘Here too we’re making progress. Water projects that are funded by the Netherlands often focus on capacity development’, De Vries responds. ‘Our funding for construction of infrastructure is limited.’

De Vries: ‘The Delta Plan also aims at strengthening the institutional capacity in Bangladesh for maintenance. A maintenance fund will be set up for example, and governments will develop integrated, long-term plans to improve flood protection, food security, sustainable economic growth and disaster preparedness.’

‘The Bangladeshi appeals for cooperation and support also shift’, says Cuelenaere. ‘That’s a positive development. When we ask the Bangladesh ministries what type of projects they need, we more and more often receive requests for knowledge exchange. This shows that the government of Bangladesh is getting ready to do more itself.’

Meeting about the Bangladesh Deltaplan in 2015. Source: website Bangladesh Deltaplan 2100

‘In it for the long haul’

Interventions can only be effective when technology and culture are integrated. ‘Dutch solutions cannot be directly applied in Bangladesh without any changes’, says De Vries. ‘Geographically our countries may be similar, the social, economical and institutional differences are significant.’

‘Earlier we already spoke about the differences between institutionalised water boards in the Netherlands and voluntary water management groups here. That’s why collaboration and co-creation by Bangladeshi and Dutch water experts are so important. We have to seek synergies and opportunities within the local context here.’

It takes time to iron out differences in culture, context and language barriers.

‘It is impossible to achieve that overnight’, says De Vries. ‘In the Netherlands, development of water boards took hundreds of years too. It takes time to iron out differences in culture, context and language barriers.’

Cuelenaere: ‘When drafting the Delta Plan, Bangladeshi and Dutch governments and experts could work together on an equal footing. This was only possible because we have always been in it for the long haul: decades of knowledge exchange laid the foundation for this fruitful collaboration. Not only IHE Delft, but exchange projects and workshops with civil servants from both countries also contributed to the foundation.’

How will the collaboration look like in the future?

The Netherlands will remain active in Bangladesh with a focus on water. The Dutch Embassy in Bangladesh is currently drafting its future agenda, in close collaboration with the Bangladesh government and other key partners. The collaboration between both countries will continue, but the question is how it will be shaped.

Climate change will become an increasingly important part in the future water agenda. Adaptation to climate change and environmental decline (“adaptive delta management”) run as a common thread through the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100. This is in line with international trends, such as the foundation of the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

In addition to that, the transition from aid to trade will continue. ‘A development that we need to follow critically’, says Cuelenaere. ‘Not every problem can be solved by trade. The poorest of the poor in the Bangladeshi Delta simply have the right to be helped. This may sometimes result in trade. A nice bonus, but it shouldn’t become a goal in itself.’

‘Although Chinese water experts are cheaper than the Dutch, we remain popular in Bangladesh’, according to De Vries. ‘That is mainly a result of the long-standing collaboration, the relations that we developed through development aid and our integrated approach. We shouldn’t just toss these assets aside.’

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