Bangladesh and the Netherlands share one thing in common: both are situated in low-lying lands, making them prone to floods and other water management issues.
Around 40% of the Netherlands lies below sea level, while 70% of Bangladesh's land is within 1 meter to 3 meters above sea level.
Owing to their shared struggles, cooperation between the two countries has intensified in recent decades. In 2018, the Bangladesh government approved the Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP) 2100, co-developed with the water management consultancy firm Dutch Water Sector and partly financed by the Netherlands.
The BDP is a 100-year mega plan which seeks to minimize the impact of climate change and disasters in the South Asian country while ensuring its long-term food security and economic growth.
Muhammad Enamul Haque, joint chief of the irrigation wing of the Bangladesh Planning Commission, said they have a lot to learn from its European partner. Haque is part of the group currently implementing the plan and was part of the team that helped formulate the BDP from 2014 to 2018.
"Netherlands is the pioneer in the world in managing water resources. In the 1960s, the Netherlands faced problems like flood, storm surge, etc, similar to Bangladesh. So for this reason, we sought their expertise and technical assistance," Haque said.
Bangladesh, one of the most populated countries, is surrounded by three large river systems, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Only 7% of these huge catchments lie in Bangladesh, while the other 93% is in China, India, Bhutan, and Nepal.
"While only 7% is in Bangladesh and the others are in China, Bhutan, India, and Nepal, we are the lowest country. What's happening, especially during the monsoon, is that 93% of the water flows through us. That is why we have a huge volume of water. Our rivers are like seas during the rainy season," Haque said.
"But during winter or dry season, we have drought. Other countries divert the flow of water to support their irrigation, so we have a scarcity of water. We only have 20% of our average flow," he added.
On top of this, Bangladesh faces the problem of high sedimentation rates, riverbank erosion, sustainable water management, and poor sanitation conditions.
But thanks to their cooperation with the Netherlands, Bangladesh now has a long-term plan to address all these issues. For the BDP alone, the Netherlands has provided more than €7million in support.
"The funds came from the government of Netherlands. The Netherlands government was kind enough to provide both the financial support, also the technical support," Haque said.
In 2019, the two countries also signed a four-year Joint Cooperation Programme (JCP), which aims to start a long-term knowledge sharing and capacity building between Dutch and Bangladeshi institutes in the fields of water resources management, integrated coastal zones management, and flood and drought management, among others.
The Netherlands also stands to gain from the cooperation. It could learn from Bangladesh's dynamic delta as well as how the country addresses complex risks.
"When you work together, there are lessons from both countries. Our rivers are like seas, they are unmanageable. And the erosion of the riverbank is huge in our country. So, this type of phenomenon is not available in the Netherlands. Plus, our delta is still in the process of creation, meaning it is a dynamic delta. The Netherlands is an old delta. They are used to a different kind of water management. Experiencing our situation can help them find more ways to handle climate change and water issues," Haque said.
For Maarten Smith, managing director of Deltares, an independent Dutch institute for applied research that is part of the JCP, they too can learn from Bangladesh's experience.
"There's a lot we can learn from this joint cooperation programme. We can find out more about the modelling of a complex delta and the highly dynamic behavior of its coasts and rivers, about the management of polders and about monitoring severely polluted rivers. But most of all, we can learn from the search for workable solutions in a different political and policy environment than in the Netherlands," Smith said.