Adaptation Strategies & Water Governance in the Netherlands & Bangladesh

By Jaap de Heer, Ellen Minkman, Jos Van Alphen 22 November, 2021

'Delta plans' help prepare for long-term climate adaptation - De Heer, Minkman & Van Alphen explain how

Climate change adaptation requires long-term strategies & solid water governance principles; Dutch & Bangladesh delta cases provide lessons from two very diffferent cases
The Dutch Program aims to maintain a safe & prosperous delta while The Bangladesh Delta Plan aims for a sustainable evolution of the Delta & it is financing this with 2.5% of GDP per annum 2.5% of GDP
Both cases emphasise the need to future-proof by building gov capacity for long-term & risk-based water governance frameworks

This article summarises the contribution of “Strategies for Climate Change Adaptation: Lessons learnt from Long-term Planning in The Netherlands and Bangladesh” by Van Alphen, De Heer and Minkman (2021) as published in the journal Water International earlier this year.

The Netherlands and Bangladesh prepared for climate adaptation through long-term planning, resulting in ‘delta plans’ with action-oriented programs and the establishment of a solid institutional framework. This requires continuity of management attention with a consistent approach and sequence of investments that require principles of good governance.

Comparing the Dutch & Bangladesh delta cases provides lessons about adaptive planning from two very different cases

The Dutch and Bangladesh deltas differ widely in water issues, socio-economic conditions and governance systems, as do the respective Delta Plans and Programs that have been prepared in recent years. Comparing the two cases provides lessons about adaptive planning to protect vulnerable areas and populations.

It also highlights points of attention for other applications of adaptive strategy making and institutional development in practice and theory. This also shows that adaptation to climate change requires action now, rather than in the future.

Characteristics of the Dutch Delta Program and Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP2100)

Both the Dutch Delta Program and the BDP2100 started with a future vision for the delta. Next, strategies, measures and special governance arrangements have been proposed to realize this vision. Principles of Adaptive Delta Management (ADM, see figure below) guided the formulation process of both.

Yet, due to different challenges faced and institutional traditions, the resulting plans differ in content and form.

The Dutch Delta Program aims to maintain safe, prosperous & attractive delta

The Dutch Delta Program aims to maintain a safe, prosperous and attractive delta for present and future generations while anticipating climate change. The strategy development focused on flood risk management, fresh water supply and water and climate resilience of the urban environment. Contrary to previous plans, there was no disastrous event prior to this paradigm shift.

… evolving with climate change & has long-term objectives plus an investment agenda

Preparations started in 2010 for the Dutch Delta Program, which in 2014 resulted in shared and coherent long-term objectives as well as an investment agenda. This included the alignment of policies, maintenance programs and investment plans across policy fields (mainly water management and land use) and government levels. These investment agendas are currently being worked out and implemented in various projects.

Work is supervised by the Delta Commissioner, an independent high-level govt official who does not work for a specific ministry but acts as a “spider in the web”

Although the Ministry of Infrastructure & Water Management is politically responsible, day-to-day work is supervised by the Delta Commissioner (and small staff). This is an independent high-level government official, whose main task is to create progress, uniformity and coherence. He does not work for a specific ministry but acts as a “spider in the web” for the various organizations related to the Delta Program. He prepares an annual progress report that advises the Cabinet on necessary actions. This report is presented to Parliament on behalf of the cabinet by the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management.

The Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP2100) aims for an evolution of the delta towards sustainable management of water, ecosystems, environment and land resources.

In the Bangladesh Delta Plan climate change adapation is linked to poverty eradication + achieving upper-middle-income status

Bangladesh has a tradition of water resources management focused on flood control, drainage and irrigation. In the BDP2100, climate change adaptation is linked to Bangladesh’ ambitions to achieve upper-middle-income status and eradicate extreme poverty.

To realize the long-term vision by the end of the 21st Century, short and medium-term goals are defined as intermediate steps. Strategies emphasise water safety and security, food security and economic growth with special attention for the coastal zone and major rivers.

Measures focus on the medium-term (2030-2050)

Measures focus on the medium-term (2030-2050) and have been elaborated for drinking water supply and sanitation, urban water, groundwater and water quality. In addition, the potential of land reclamation, agriculture, transportation and blue economy has been explored.

BDP2100 is supported by an annual financing block provision of  2.5% of Bangladesh’s GDP

Together, these form an adaptive pathway that is adaptive to the changing climate and recurring natural disasters. BDP2100 strategies and investments are included in the Five-Year Planning Cycle of the Nation and are supported by an annual financing block provision of 2.5% of Bangladesh’ GDP.

A special Delta Governance Council has been set up to decide on measures and prioritization of investments, as proposed by the implementing ministries and agencies. A newly established Delta Wing within the Planning Ministry ensures coordination as well as monitoring and evaluation of the plan.

Utilization of and adding to the Principles of Water Governance

The approach of Neto et al. (2019) was followed to assess the application of ADM in both cases, with a focus on their alignment with OECD Principles on Water Governance (OECD 2015). Both demonstrate compliance with these principles, especially in the areas of (innovative) governance, stakeholder participation and inter-policy and inter-agency coordination, funding, and monitoring and evaluation.

While the OECD principles proved useful and relevant in many countries, they do not account for two aspects of ADM that are new to water governance: the long-term focus and the risk-based approach. It is therefore proposed to add a 13th and 14th Water Governance Principle.

The 13th principle concerns designing and managing a planning process with a long-term perspective. This entails preparing narratives about different possible futures (external scenarios) and combining these scenarios with adopting a holistic long-term vision. Combined, they provide a framework for adaptive strategies that are able to deal with future uncertainties (e.g. climate change) while driving short term investment agenda’s.

It is important for water to be analysed with a long-term perspective & risk-based approach

The 14th principle of Water Governance concerns the risk-based approach. Living in a delta has many benefits and involves high levels of economic activities and investments. As such, a risk-based approach should be adopted to adequately manage extreme events, like floods and droughts. These extreme events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change and thus are likely to become more relevant in future water governance. Overall, these cases emphasize the need to build government capacity in dealing with uncertainties (such as strategic planning skills, learning, governance and participatory processes) and knowledge management

To reach these conclusions, a specific type of action research was adopted, whereby the authors reflected – based on their knowledge and experiences – on the policy development and strategic planning as well as governance development processes. To avoid bias from the authors’ side, recent methods of using the OECD principles were combined (Neto, 2018; Van Alphen, De Heer and Minkman, 2021). These complemented each other and enabled a transparent analysis.

Bangladesh and the Netherlands managed to develop flexibility and an adaptive strategy

Living in a delta requires flexibility and an adaptive strategy to deal with long-term uncertainties and the dynamics of nature and society. Overall, this comparative case study showed that Bangladesh and the Netherlands managed to develop such a strategy while complying with the OECD Principles on Water Governance and provided lessons from these experiences that can help other applications of long-term planning and strategy making for adaptation to climate change in practice.

Furthermore, it is important to use this type of strategy making and water governance for ‘future-proofing’ the OECD principles so they can account for long-term and risk-based water governance frameworks that are needed to deal with climate change and other uncertain issues with long duration.


Bloemen, P. et al. (2018). Lessons learned from applying adaptation pathways in flood risk management and challenges for the further development of this approach. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 23, 1083–1108.

De Heer, J.M., and M. Aartsen. (2019). Bangladesh prepares itself for a climate resilient future. Water Governance, 03/2019, 87-97.

Neto, S. et al. (2018). OECD Principles on Water Governance in practice: an assessment of existing frameworks in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Africa and South America. Water International, 43(1), 60–89.

Further Reading

  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand
  • How To Make Water Issues Matter To World Leaders – Except Singapore, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in the last 50 years. How can this paradigm shift? Global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada explore
  • It Happened – Central Banks And Water Risks – Half a dozen new reports by the NGFS means that CWR has achieved a key milestone in embedding water risks in finance. Debra Tan and Dharisha Mirando expand on these game-changing moves by the central banks. The credit evolution has started
  • Regulators Have A Role To Play In Tackling The Global Water Crisis – Climate change creates systemic risks to financial systems. With USD316bn of losses from disasters in 2018-19, Ceres’ Robin Miller on urgent actions regulators can take to ensure stability and investors that have made a start on water risks
  • Climate Change On Flood Risk Assessment & Adaptation Approach – Climate change is adding great uncertainty to traditional flood risk assessment. Should the models trusted? How should govts adapt to it? Oxford scholar Natalie Chung shares her insights

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Jaap de Heer
Author: Jaap de Heer
Dr. Jaap de Heer is senior partner of Twynstra Gudde Holding B.V. (a management consultancy company in the Netherlands) and former chairholder at VU University Amsterdam on Strategic Management and Transformative Change. He studied Civil Engineering as well as Organization Sciences. His PhD at Leiden University concerns strategy making under conditions of adversity and aspects of revitalization. Dr. De Heer is closely involved in adaptation to climate change and related research, strategy making and water governance. From 01-03-2014 till 30-09-2018 he was, on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bangladesh Ministry of Planning, active as Director of the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 Formulation Project. Since 01-10-2018 till to date he guides the BDP2100 Implementation Process, aimed at climate change adaptation, food security and socio-economic development. Besides, Dr. De Heer is practitioner in the field of Strategic Management and Transformative Change in the Netherlands and Indonesia, focusing on scenario based strategy making (e.g. long range and master planning) and institutional development as response to climate change and other significant developments.
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Ellen Minkman
Author: Ellen Minkman
Dr. Ellen Minkman is a researcher and lecturer in water governance, at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands). Dr. Minkman holds master’s degrees in civil engineering and in science communication. In 2021, she completed a PhD on policy transfer and translation of Dutch delta management Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia. She investigated conditions for effective translation of policy ideas and programs so that the policies it inspired fit local contexts. Alongside her PhD, she followed the Dutch National Water Traineeship, a young professional personal development program. Her work currently concentrates on water and delta management, especially in relation to decision-making for future-proof urban deltas as well as governance transitions in water management and related policy fields (e.g. agriculture, energy). Dr. Minkman is also a team member of the CLOSER CITIES initiative, a ten-year research program that aims to optimize urban knowledge sharing and to bridge the science-practice divide.
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Jos Van Alphen
Author: Jos Van Alphen
Jos van Alphen graduated from Utrecht University, The Netherlands, in Physical Geography in 1983. From 1984 -2010 he was employed at different positions in the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management / Rijkswaterstaat, being responsible for coastal zone management, river management and flood risk management. In 2010 he joined the Delta Programme Commissioners’ staff. As a senior advisor on strategy and knowledge development, he is responsible for knowledge management and development of adaptive strategies for e.g. sea level rise. In this position, he gained experience with long term planning, multi-level governance and joint fact-finding. He shares this knowledge and experience in international cooperation projects with delta communities in Bangladesh, China, Japan, Philippines, USA and most EU countries, and as a member of Ad-hoc Committee on Flood Risk Management Conferences.
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