Improving floodplain management through adaptive learning networks in Bangladesh

Funded by International Development Research Center
Duration: January 2007 to April 2010

Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association

Banchte Shekha

Independent University, Bangladesh

Middlesex University, UK

Flood Hazard Research Center

In recent years the Government of Bangladesh has undertaken several initiatives and projects to improve local fisheries management and water resources management with or without donor support, most involve some form of community based organizations (CBOs). The various funded projects were all time bound, but had the intention of establishing community management of fisheries, wetlands or water resources structures. The major question is sustainability.  

Often the essence of the projects fades out after project support finishes due to gaps in: knowledge, leadership capability, funding, technology, access to resources, and unity of efforts. Floodplain resource users are either poor and weak or rich and influential. In mixed communities the poor are often suppressed and one of the main themes of community based management, therefore, has been to encourage and empower the poor to take part in management and for the rich to support them.  

For example, jalmahals (waterbodies where the government leases out fishing rights) and water control structures have been transferred for long term community management under government oversight. But sustainable use requires local coordination and collective action and for this local institutions and CBOs are needed, and have been established.  

In larger systems – larger wetlands and large water management projects both CBOs and co-management forums that link CBOs and government have been established but are still at an experimental stage.  

Adaptive management is ‘an approach based on the recognition that the management of natural resources is always experimental, that we can learn from implemented activities, and that natural resource management can be improved on the basis of what has been learned’ (Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2000). Since each natural resource location is unique, any good management could be argued to be adaptive with the managers trying to improve management and respond to changing circumstances. But the uniqueness and isolation of each of these locally managed units limits this process. The solution is a network among CBOs for adaptive learning.

Regional adaptive learning workshop, Jessore

In management through adaptive learning the existence of uncertainties is made a focus of management efforts which seek to reduce them at the same time as managing the resource. In such cases learning, and reducing uncertainties about the resource system being managed, becomes a vital and integral part of management itself. Learning is seen as a three stage process comprised of: information generation, information sharing and information utilization. 

Adaptation is about systematically using the results of management and monitoring to test assumptions and thereby improve interventions. If the intervention did not achieve the expected results, it is because either:

  • assumptions were wrong,
  • interventions were poorly executed,
  • conditions at the intervention site had changed,
  • monitoring was faulty, or
  • some combination of these problems.

Adaptation involves changing the assumptions and the interventions to respond to new information obtained through the monitoring efforts. Learning is about systematically documenting the process that was followed and the results that were achieved. This documentation and its dissemination is expected to avoid making mistakes in the future. 

The project tested this approach by working with about 150 existing CBOs in Bangladesh that no longer receive support from the projects that initiated them, but which continue to manage floodplain resources. 

The diagram shows the concept of how planning by and lessons from individual CBOs are shared and coordinated among a network in an annual cycle of adaptive learning. 
Click here to see the Adaptive learning concept diagram


The project aims to investigate how community organizations can improve their management of floodplain resources through adaptive learning. The project will: 

  1. Test, demonstrate and assess adaptive learning networks for co-production of knowledge to improve the sustainability and productivity of floodplain natural resources through community based management in Bangladesh over two cycles of adaptive learning.
  2. Identify lessons and processes that might be relevant for adaptive learning involving CBOs active in similar environments in South and Southeast Asia.
  3. Generate comparisons between floodplain environments which are expected to improve understanding of generic lessons and issues of context specific organisational development and performance.

Through action research the project aims to address the following research questions: 

  1. Can adaptive learning improve CBO governance (transparency, equity, gender relations and balance), and information flows, monitoring and knowledge within community based co-management?
  2. How do the outcomes from management plans developed through adaptive learning improve resource sustainability and productivity?
  3. Do CBOs as a result of adaptive learning achieve a more equitable distribution of returns from the floodplain (considering social classes and men and women), and enhance poor people’s livelihoods?
  4. What are the interactions between adaptive learning, CBOs, and policy? – the role of existing policies and laws in enabling or limiting CBOs and learning processes, and the scope of CBOs through learning processes, networks and their evidence to influence policy. 
  5. Do adaptive learning impacts differ according to floodplain environments, the level of co-management bodies and their linkages, and contextual factors (origin of CBO, government interactions, type of waterbody)?
  6. What arrangements and processes are effective for adaptive learning?
  7. What common lessons for practice and policy arise from the process?


The project has supported CBO networking by facilitating discussions and interactions among the CBOs and connecting them with one another. This involves meetings, exchange visits, workshops and newsletters, including review workshops where the CBOs draw lessons from each other’s experience over the year and identify adjustments that they wish to test in their resource management.

Workshops have been held in 2007, 2008 and 2009 between the leaders of CBOs from each region– to review their management plans and practices, gaps in knowledge, and practices that could be adapted from one area to another.

The CBOs identified and agreed on plans to test improvements in their management practices that can be compared between locations so that innovation and improvements based on experience can spread more quickly.

Examples of practices that that were identified and tested by CBOs include:

  • improvements to fish sanctuaries and fish sanctuaries where they did not previously exist,
  • reintroduction of native fish species,
  • restoration of aquatic plants and tree planting,
  • improvements in stocking practices in closed beels and oxbow lakes (baors),
  • adoption of alternative dry season crops that have lower irrigation demand than irrigated (boro) rice but which give comparable returns, for example garlic, potatoes, oilseeds,
  • alternative ways of processing jute to reduce water pollution,
  • composting to use excessive water hyacinth,
  • bee keeping and duck rearing to complement existing agriculture and fishery activities.

Adaptive learning
The knowledge and understanding of CBO leaders on the interlinked aspects of floodplain natural resource management increased. The adaptive learning process proved effective for co-production of knowledge of practical use to floodplain communities.

Workshops among CBOs in each region were the key element coupled with exchange visits across regions and access to a transparent system of small grants (many CBOs also took up improvements in governance and continued good practices without outside funds).

The CBOs became more responsive to the interests of poor people through the learning process. Many CBOs strengthened the role of women after meeting women who already took an active role in resource management.

However, environment, history and the organisational arrangements of CBOs affect some of their opportunities. For example, CBOs formed to manage fisheries based on group fishing and sharing costs and benefits have less scope to diversify membership and resource management than CBOs comprised of a range of stakeholders managing more diverse mix of floodplain cultivated land and water.

The project provided some limited support to CBOs for piloting to address knowledge gaps, but unlike most projects the emphasis is on the CBOs themselves taking initiatives and gaining and sharing knowledge. More than 120 CBOs took up piloting of these various options for integrated or improved floodplain management and most are complementing this by undertaking participatory monitoring to generate evidence for lesson learning.

Research evidence and CBO learning found that fishery conservation (sanctuaries, closed seasons, etc) has restored fish species diversity and catches, even in closed waterbodies. As many households catch fish for food or income this translated into increased incomes for fishing households and improved food security in general.

During 2007-2009 56% of participating CBOs took a range of funded actions to improve fisheries management with support through the adaptive learning process.

Fish sanctuaries have been found by CBOs to be beneficial in all types of waterbody and management system, including closed beels. Fish sanctuaries in part of a waterbody (the average for participating CBOs is 6% of dry season water area) are associated with increases in species diversity, restoration of locally rare species, and increases in catch per unit effort. Fishers recommend that branches from Shaora, Hijol, Tetul, Mango and Babla trees are best for sanctuaries and those of Nim, Sajna, Jiga and Akashmoni should be avoided.


New sanctuary in Porakhali Baor, Jessore (SW)

CBOs in closed beels (baors) that added sanctuaries through adaptive learning reported that species diversity of native fishes that can reproduce in the baors was low before sanctuaries were established (averaging 7-8 species year round), but with sanctuaries increased during the monsoon and post monsoon to 14 species.

In addition 11 CBOs tried re-introduction of rare/locally extinct fishes.
Modifying sluice management so that it is “fish friendly” – for example opening in the early monsoon so that fish can migrate when water levels start to rise, has been attempted by several CBOs although the impacts are hard to assess.
Alternative crops
An increasing number of CBOs have tested dry season crops (garlic, mustard, maize, sunflower, etc) with low water demand which were new to their areas. These have proven to give better returns and to require much less water than irrigated rice, thereby reducing water abstraction and improving fish survival.

384 farmers from 100 CBOs tried different low water demand alternative crops (garlic, potato, maize, sunflower, potato, wheat, and mustard) which were not previously grown in their areas. The number of adopting CBOs increased in all regions and environments.

Garlic demonstration at Hail Haor in Srimangal (NC)

On average all crops proved profitable according to the farmers. Although garlic was the most popular and economically viable crop for the floodplain environment, pulses gave the highest net return on investment (about 5 times) and net return per acre. Pulses also fix nitrogen and need very little fertilizer and almost no pesticide.

Upscaling within each CBO area is slow but farmers who tried the crops have expanded their areas. After successful CBO demonstrations of maize and sunflower in the southwest region, during December 2009-January 2010, 40 CBOs adopted sunflower and made linkages to sell their harvest.

Returns from low water demand crops taken up by CBOs compared with irrigated rice in 2008-09 dry season.


Water demand (mm)a

No. of farms

Net return as % of HYV rice

Benefit – cost ratio

Net return (US$/100 mm water/ha)











































HYV rice






a Biswas and Mandal (1993) quoted in Shankar et al. (2004)

Other interventions
Jute retting (to separate jute fibre) is traditionally done in open waterbodies during the early-mid monsoon. If there is insufficient rain then jute retting causes a serious threat to fishery and human health as there is a limited area of water and there retting de-oxygenates the water and makes a bad odour, causes skin disease, and the water area becomes a den for mosquito breeding.

The project linked CBOs with government agencies that could offer a simple alternative processing method (“ribbon retting”) that minimises loss of water quality. This involves stripping fibre when green off freshly cut jute stalks and then soaking it in small water containers, rather than the traditional method of soaking the stalks in openwaters and then stripping the fibre off after it has softened and part decayed.

The benefit to fisheries of better water quality was an incentive to try this process. The project arranged training for interested CBOs that faced this problem, and a very simple equipment for stripping jute fibre without soaking (retting) the fresh jute stalks. About 50 CBOs were trained in alternative processing and farmers there tried alternate jute retting to reduce water pollution, the majority reported that this worked and had better returns.

10 CBOs tried duck rearing as a way of diversifying their income sources and adding value from their waterbodies. This has been a learning process to improve duckling survival, although profitable it requires development of some expertise and six CBOs are continuing.

Duck rearing at Ramchandrapur, Naogaon (NW)

Other interventions tested by CBOs include:

  • Growing trees along waterbody edges to provide branches, stabilise soil, reduce soil erosion and in places provide swamp forest habitat.
  • Goat rearing to make use of by-products from growing alternative crops.
  • Bee keeping to improve pollination of vegetables and fruit and add an income source.

These form part of the integrated floodplain management approach and reflect ideas and issues raised by the CBOs. Experience in these and other initiatives are summarised in Bangla in a series of information sheets

Institutions and networking
Annual assessments of CBOs were conducted by the project team to understand the governance and management status of the CBOs and how this changes.

A majority of CBOs have strengthened and diversified their natural resource management, and given a greater role for and recognition of the needs of the poor.

Natural resource related rule breaking and conflict was already at a relatively low level where these CBOs were functioning and has fallen during the two and a half years of adaptive learning. There are also cases where CBOs have worked together to overcome either internal conflicts within a member CBO or external threats.
More transparent governance practices have been reinforced and spread among more CBOs, such as revising management plans annually, holding AGMs, electing office bearers, internal audits, and savings and revolving funds.

Without peer pressure through the adaptive learning network these CBOs would at best have continued as before.

We conclude that adaptive learning among networks of CBOs has potential in other countries and environments.

The network established through this project has been formalised by the CBOs, but its short term sustainability will depend on continued access to some outside resources and facilitation.

In the long term there are threats to the continued access of CBOs to floodplain waterbodies and their network needs support to play a greater role in influencing policy and practice of government.


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