Adaptation and collaboration in managing freshwater pollution in Dhaka, Bangladesh: Assessing capacity


D_Armitage Derek Armitage, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability



While Bangladesh has improved water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) outcomes in the last decade, socio-economic, demographic and environmental changes pose substantial and shifting barriers to effective freshwater pollution management in Dhaka, with direct implications for population health. Bangladesh has responded by strengthening its institutional context, and the broader water and sanitation sector, to enhance governance and fresh water pollution management. Concerns, however, remain over implementation and engagement gaps.

This study critically assesses the capacity of water sector actors in Dhaka, Bangladesh to support more collaborative and adaptive approaches to water pollution management. Three specific objectives guided the analysis: 1) to assess existing institutional arrangements for freshwater pollution management;  2) to examine how water sector actors perceive and experience opportunities for greater collaboration and engagement in the current institutional context; and 3) to investigate what experiences, strategies and opportunities exist to further build the capacity of freshwater pollution management stakeholders to adapt to uncertain conditions and support better outcomes.


The study used an adaptive co-management framework to assess Dhaka’s institutional capacity and guide analysis of: 1) community networks and multi-level linkages that guide decision-making; 2) the commitment to collaboration and meaningful engagement with diverse actors; and 3) consideration of institutional and process strategies required to build stakeholder capacity (Table 1).

Key parameter

Criteria for assessment

Multi-level and cross sector linkages

  • Meaningful coordination of different actor types across diverse jurisdictional levels
  • Clarity of roles of different actors (i.e., within and across different actor groups)
  • Presence of ‘bridging organization’ or actor to link actors across levels and scales of activity

Collaboration and meaningful engagement of diverse actors

  • Presence or occurrence of meaningful engagement process that considers social and cultural challenges (e.g., gender representation)
  • Specific mechanisms (legal, regulatory) that catalyze or require engagement
  • Participation of decision makers (implementing actors) in participatory processes

Capacity for adaptation

  • Collective action on programs to prepare for the future
  • Perceptions of shared experience to foster ‘learning’
  • Application or implementation of monitoring processes to adjust policies and adapt to changing conditions

Table 1. Assessment framework.

Applying a qualitative and inductive case study approach, data was gathered through a literature review and 25 semi-structured interviews with key water pollution management actors, including those from government, industry and civil society organizations.


The results reveal a rich diversity of actors with a water pollution management mandate in Dhaka, but this complexity leads to accountability and coordination challenges, as well as challenges in creating linkages between organizations and across levels. Institutions tend to be ‘top-down’ and ‘bureaucratic’, resulting in decision-making that is both slow and sometimes unresponsive to feedback in the system, ultimately impacting effective and adequate implementation.

The research showed that significant challenges exist in building collaborative processes and facilitating multi-stakeholder engagement. Top-down decision-making leaves little room for dialogue and sustained collaborative networks. Perceived systemic barriers to participation in decision and policy-making include exclusionary consultation practices, lack of organizational time and space to participate, and social and cultural barriers that may favour male and senior positions. Further, there is a significant disconnect between policy-makers, decision-makers and implementers, which may lead to policies and decisions not informed by grounded perspectives.

Another challenge identified was the ability of water pollution management actors to build capacity to adapt to uncertain conditions. Adaptation requires effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, but the study found that further capacity building was required to assess the success of implementation activities, define challenges and identify key areas that require re-evaluation or re-direction. Where monitoring, evaluation and enforcement programs exist, they are heavily impacted by different perspectives among actors, financial barriers to promote change, and pressure to overstate success. Some participants noted the potential for conflict if they raised issues with leadership. As a result, the monitoring process may mask or underreport challenges, limit feedback mechanisms that reflect the reality of experience and ultimately constrain implementation efforts.

An additional barrier to adaptation related to perceptions of shared experiences among stakeholders that might foster ‘learning’, or building shared understanding for action. Participants suggested better outcomes were possible with more collaborative and adaptive approaches. A desire for collective action was identified as a catalyst for supportive government action. Opportunities for collective action, learning and adaptive capacity seem to be emerging, however, given strong government commitment and a supportive Prime Minister.


While Dhaka faces many freshwater management challenges, stakeholder perceptions show progress is being made, especially with commitment from high-level leadership. The study offers a number of recommendations to promote further advancement. First, the sharing of power and authority can enhance the engagement of civil society and community organizations in identifying and implementing solutions. Second, there is a need to clarify institutional arrangements and responsibilities for action by addressing overlapping jurisdictional claims and mandates. Third, enhanced multi-level linkages to illuminate where local-scale efforts need to be nested within higher level and supportive institutional contexts should be identified. Fourth, government agencies should catalyze collaborative approaches to water management as institutional leaders. Finally, government institutions should focus on relationship building and sharing of decision-making power. While participants were concerned about the time this requires, the literature notes that short-term transaction costs of collaboration pay dividends in the longer term.

Lindamood, D., Armitage, D., Sharmin, D.F., Brouwer, R., Elliott, S.J., Liu, J.A. & Khan, M.R. (2021). Assessing the capacity for adaptation and collaboration in the context of freshwater pollution management in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Environmental Science & Policy, 120, June 2021, 99-107.

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Photo by Dilruba Fatima Sharmin