For many years the small farmers and sharecroppers in Choto Lobongola community not far from Barguna sadar town in southern Bangladesh faced the annual challenges of not enough fresh water in the dry season to grow crops, and too much water in the monsoon season causing waterlogging.
Saline ground water and increasingly erratic and unreliable rainfall in the winter and pre-monsoon period meant that the land was parched and farmers left it fallow or only sowed grasspea (khesari) on the chance of getting some harvest.
In addition to climate and environmental constraints, some influential people made barriers inside the local sluice gate so that they could catch fish. Over time this caused the canal to silt up and it was then grabbed by some influential people who planted trees and claimed the public waterway for cultivation.
Increasing tide levels and siltation resulted in waterlogging, and the only option for some landowners was to build shrimp farms. But this caused conflict over allowing fresh or brackish water into the area.
A combination of elites capturing resources (which changed the interaction of water, silt and land use) and climate trends resulted in regular conflicts, sometimes over scarce water, but more seriously when drainage constraints including bunds of shrimp farms caused waterlogging and regularly flooded homesteads.
Choto Lobongola Matsha Jibi Kalayan Somobay Samittee Limited is a member of a network of similar community based organisations (CBOs) called Society for Water Resources Management. The leaders of Choto Lobongola discussed their problems in the regional forum of this network to get suggestions from other CBOs. Other CBO leaders said they had been able to cooperate to re-excavate canals which might reduce monsoon waterlogging and also store water for dry season irrigation.
The Choto Lobongola representative shared this idea with his members. With help from researchers from Flood Hazard Research Centre, consultation meetings were held with the different stakeholders.
By 2013-14 the elites as well as the poor were suffering from flooding in their homestead areas due to drainage congestion and agreed to sit together to discuss what had become a common problem. During participatory planning the different groups agreed that re-excavation and an end to barrier fishing were needed.
The community agreed to contribute labour towards excavation, obtained endorsement for re-excavating the canal from the district administration, had the canal demarcated, and cut down the trees growing there.
After excavating in 2015, they re-activated and reformed a committee including representatives from the community to take decisions over sluice operation.
Farmers, especially sharecroppers, tried cultivating dry season crops that were new to the area such as sunflower and maize using water stored in the canal. These crops are much more water efficient than irrigated rice, needing less than 20% of the water used for rice and are relatively drought tolerant.
Cooperating in crop choices has helped more farmers benefit from fresh water stored in the canal. Fish were now free to move through the canal and, by conserving small sanctuaries, the CBO restored local aquatic nature and livelihoods of the poor. Drainage improved and waterlogging ended, so now people who used to be in conflict and avoid one another discuss water management and help each other in their work.
Choto Lobongola is just one of 53 conflict case studies in 43 locations in Bangladesh which, with a further 26 cases in Nepal, have been the focus of an action research project.
Community based Adaptive Learning in management of Conflicts and Natural Resources in Bangladesh and Nepal (CALCNR) project is supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and involves collaboration between Middlesex University’s Flood Hazard Research Centre, ForestAction Nepal, iDE and Nice Foundation.
All of the sites had existing community-based organisations that had mobilised poorer people in managing natural resources through past completed projects supported by government and NGOs, but also faced conflicts.
In Bangladesh most of the local conflicts studied in floodplains over natural resources revolved around water management (27 cases), or access to commons (18 cases, such as fish, aquatic plants and other wild resources), with a few (8) others related to accessing public lands or internal disputes within CBOs. There were multiple factors behind each local conflict, as at Choto Lobongola, typically three to four causal factors.
In three quarters of water management conflicts recent climate stresses and changes triggered or worsened conflict along with access disputes, declining natural resources, and local elites changing the characteristics of resources (for example, blocking waterways). By comparison conflicts over common natural resources were mainly a result of elites capturing resources at the expense of the poor, and gaps and biases in polices and their application. Examples include loss of access rights to public waterbodies (jalmohals
) by local community organisations which took legal action against the government or were excluded when they lost leases, and marshy floodplains (including public and private lands) where the poor could collect plants and small fish and graze livestock being converted by the wealthy into aquaculture farms.
Out of the 79 cases of conflict in Bangladesh floodplains and in Nepal over community forests and local water supplies, action research with the communities was able to transform conflict into enhanced cooperation in 62 cases. The infographic opposite highlights the eight factors that were identified that contributed to this transformation.
In the 41 cases that were resolved in Bangladesh, negotiation and mediation were important in almost all, but were not in themselves sufficient – four to five enablers worked together as part of transformation. Technical innovations such as re-excavation and adopting stress resilient crops, as in Choto Lobongola, were important in resolving water conflicts, but other factors were at least as important. These include innovations in governance (access rules, CBO membership), sharing knowledge (indigenous and experts), systematic learning between CBOs, and local incentives. Incentives include sharing costs of actions between former conflicting groups, enhanced social status from resolving disputes, and the benefit of more productive and resilient natural resource systems.
The 12 cases where conflicts persisted are similar to Choto Lobongola: Conflicts mainly arose from access disputes where local elites grabbed resources (commons, land or water). But these cases remained unresolved as the advantaged saw no benefit in changing their practices, and because injustices were often a result of those with power taking advantage of gaps or biases in how policies are implemented.
These cases reveal the complex causes of local conflicts in the floodplains. They show that enabling factors rarely work as a single element in transforming conflict to cooperation.
Conflicts over natural resources are inevitable, but adaptation can be enhanced by encouraging communities through these good practices. Climate change adaptation initiatives should:
recognise local natural resource conflicts;
build in flexibility to adopt those enabling practices appropriate to each location;
respond to local needs and opportunities;
recognise and maintain local ecosystem functions; and
encourage coordination, negotiation and joint actions between existing institutions and CBOs.
The writters work at Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University