Lessons for flood risk management from resilience framing in the Netherlands and Bangladesh

Group work task description

Anna Wesselink

1 Overall aim

The aim of the group work is to find differences and similarities in resilience in the domain of water management in The Netherlands (NL) and Bangladesh (BD), and to formulate recommendations from this comparison on how we can continue to live in these locations in the longer term (100-500 years). It is expected that the effects of climate change on sea levels, rainfall and river discharges in the future will make the current ways of delta living increasingly difficult, which is made worse by continuing subsidence of the land.
We have opted for Dordrecht and Dhaka as the two cases that will be compared in order to limit our case study are to something manageable both in terms of data and overview. These cities are similar because they are both urban delta cities, but the flood risk management (FRM) strategies are different. The two cities are also different because the socio-economic conditions are very dissimilar. Finally, we note that even the concept of ‘flood’ has a different meaning in the two cities: in Dhaka it includes flooding from excess rainwater, while in Dordrecht this would be labelled ‘overlast’ (nuisance) which has a connotation of not to be taken seriously, contrary to flooding from rivers or the sea.

We are aiming to produce a scientific paper as well as policy briefs on the work; any other suggestions are welcome.

2 Work flow & Organisation

For the overall programme please refer to the workshop programme document. During the workshop we will take the following steps to achieve realise the comparison described above:


  1.  start with a shared understanding of resilience
  2.  decide on a comparative framework so we are comparing like with like


  1. collect the information to fill this framework for the two cases
  2. assess the resilience of the two cases from this information
  3. evaluate your assumptions

Participants will be split into 3 groups with mixed disciplinary backgrounds and mixed nationalities. Each group will work through questions 3 to 5 independently, in an iterative fashion if time allows. This means that steps 3 to 4 will be repeated if any improvements are proposed by the group in step 5. Each group will prepare a presentation of their work for the closure event on Friday 16 February PM, where a panel of experts will comment on the findings.

3 Definition of resilience and assessment framework

This section proposes the starting points 1 and 2 in the above list. We will discuss and review these proposals at the start of our workweek. While many assessment frameworks and indicators are available in the scientific literature, we have chosen to take a ‘bottoms up’ approach in this workweek. This means that we are creating our own assessment framework at the same time as doing the assessment. We nevertheless need some starting points, which are proposed below.

3.1 Resilience (task 1)

We are using ‘system’ to mean the inseparable combination of society and its environment, and the measures that were taken to modify the environment for society’s benefit. In deltas, the interdependency between societies, their natural environment and technological intervention is particularly obvious. We focus on the systems in Dhaka and Dordrecht.

There are two definitions of resilience. The first is a common sense understanding. It interprets resilience as bouncing back after disturbance, or recovery to what you were before in more general terms. In this definition there is often an implicit focus on resisting change and/or control change to maintain stability. We see that this is what societies try to do with regards to delta living, by focussing on investments in flood defence and drainage infrastructures, although there are examples of moves away from this ‘hard’ FRM (Wesselink et al. 2015).

The second one is proposed by one of the prominent scholars on this issue (Folke 2016 p.2). Here, resilience is having the capacity to persist in the face of change by adapting or even transforming into new development pathways. Adaptation refers to human actions that sustain development on current pathways, while transformation is about shifting development into other emergent pathways and even creating new ones.

In the second understanding, a system can change dramatically (=transform) while still being resilient. This intuitively contradicts the first, common sense definition. It is also not an option chosen voluntarily by societies, so we do not want to consider (planned) transformations in our assessment of resilience. However, we do propose to include adaptation as a possible solution to creating resilience, in addition to resistance. To note that the distinction between the two is often unclear: is the construction of levees (=dikes) resisting floods or adapting the land for human occupation? It is usually seen as the former, while the latter could also be argued: it depends on your perspective. The question of how different perspectives affect the assessment of the situation is an important one for the workweek.

3.2 Assessment framework (task 2) & information needed (task 3)

In the assessment framework information is collected on the three main subsystems discussed above: technical, physical and social (to include society, political economic, institutional). The assessment will be qualitative and based mainly on participants’ own knowledge and experience with FRM in their respective home countries, as well as existing scientific and other literature that will be made available and/or accessed on line during the workshop. The emphasis is on comparing through discussion and exchange of views, as well as reflection on the concept of resilience and on what it means to compare cases. In our experience, being exposed to another situation raises many questions: about one’s own and about the other case. Unfortunately we can only visit the Dordrecht case together, so we ask the Bangladeshi participants to come prepared with stories and pictures of daily life in Dhaka (their own and others’) as well as summary information to answer the questions below for Dhaka (Sections 3.2.1 to 3.2.3).

To be clear: we do not envisage to compile a data base with quantitative information, run GIS or other model analyses. Sometime quantitative data, for example on population density or flood frequency, will enrich the qualitative analysis.

3.2.1 Assessment of the technical FRM system

This task will inventorise whether any FRM measures are in place and how they function. To facilitate the task, FRM measures can be classified in a number of different ways. We will use the multi-level safety (MLS) classification now in use in NL (Figure 1), which is explained here:


including more links. This framework was already used in Dordrecht (Gersonius et al. 2010, Gersonius et al. 2010, van Herk et al. 2014) and we will benefit from this work during the workweek through Dr Gersonius’s input.

Figure 1 Dutch Multi-layer FRM approach

3.2.2 Assessment of the physical system

A non-exhaustive list of questions to be answered for both cases (to be reviewed):

  • what are the flood risks[1], where and what is their source?
  • how are they likely to change in the future?
  • how does land use (not) take account of these risks? is this likely to change in the future?

3.2.3 Assessment of the social system

A non-exhaustive list of questions to be answered for both cases (to be reviewed):

Society (consider different social strata incl. temporary migrants & gender for each of these questions):

  • what is people’s understanding of and attitude to flood risk?
  • do they know how to respond to flooding? have they already taken action?
  • who is affected by flood risks? which risks (source, frequency, duration)?


  • what political priority does flood risk have nationally, and in Dhaka?
  • does this translate into budget being made available?
  • for whom & what power do they have?
  • who is in fact making decisions regarding flood risk (as opposed to formally)?


  • what economic interests exist? which one(s) dominate in formal and informal decisions?
  • how much damage does (potential) flooding do to the respective interests?



  • what legal & policy texts exist regarding flood risk in Dhaka, incl. related issues such as urban planning?
  • which concrete plans are made to put these texts into practice? by whom? are they implemented? why (not)?
  • who is/are responsible for managing flood risk? are they collaborating?
  • do they have the capacity (financial & expertise) to implement their tasks? why (not)?

3.3 Resilience assessment (task 4)

The following questions will help to assess the overall system resilience of the two cases:

  • Resilience of what?
  • Resilience to what?
  • Resilience at what scale?
  • Resilience for whom?
  • Resilience for what purpose?
  • Resilient at what cost?

3.4 Evaluating assumptions (task 5)

Groups will need to keep a diary to note technical or conceptual issues as well as disagreements they come across in their discussions. This will help to evaluate the assessment framework and the definition of resilience. Guiding questions are:

  • Is our definition of resilience useful/meaningful for both cases, if not how should it be changed, maybe to be different in each case?
  • Is the outcome of the resilience assessment meaningful considering your overall impression and knowledge of the systems? If not, where does this discrepancy come from?
  • Should the assessment framework be changed to be more meaningful, maybe differently in each case? If so how?
  • It is truly possible to compare cases, or are we comparing ‘apples’ with ‘pears’?

3.5 Reporting & presentation

Please prepare a 15 min presentation that discusses the following questions:

  1. how do you assess the resilience of the two cities?
  2. what did you learn about resilience?
  3. what did you learn about comparison?

4 References

  • Folke C (2016) Resilience (Republished). Ecology and Society 21(4):44.
  • Gersonius B, Veerbeek W, Subhan A, Stone K, Zevenbergen C (2010) Toward a More Flood Resilient Urban Environment: The Dutch Multi-level Safety Approach to Flood Risk Management. In: K. Otto-Zimmermann (ed.), Resilient Cities: Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change. Proceedings of the Global Forum 2010, Local Sustainability 1 273-282
  • Gersonius B, Ashley R, Zevenbergen C (2012) The identity approach for assessing socio-technical resilience to climate change: example of flood risk management for the Island of Dordrecht Natural Hazards and Earth System Science 12 2139–2146
  • van Herk S, Zevenbergen C, Gersonius B, Waals H, Kelder E (2014) Process design and management for integrated flood risk management: exploring the multi-layer safety approach for Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Journal of Water and Climate Change 5(1) 100-115
  • Wesselink A, Warner J, Abu Syed S, Chan F, Duc Tran D, Huq H, Huthoff F, Le Thuy N, Pinter N, Van Staveren M, Wester P, Zegwaard A (2015) Trends in flood risk management in deltas around the world: are we going ‘soft’? International Journal of Water Governance 3(4) 25-46


[1] we are using the common speech definition of risk = chance (as opposed to the scientific definition risk – chance times damage)