Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The unequal distribution of water risks and adaptation benefits in coastal Bangladesh


Increasing flood risk, salinization and waterlogging threaten the lives and livelihoods of more than 35 million people in Bangladesh’s coastal zone. While planning models have long been used to inform investments in water infrastructure, they frequently overlook interacting risks, impacts on the poor and local context. We address this gap by developing and applying a stochastic-optimization model to simulate the impact of flood embankment investments on the distribution of agricultural incomes across income groups for six diverse polders (embanked areas) in coastal Bangladesh. Results show that increasing salinity and waterlogging negate the benefits of embankment rehabilitation in improving agricultural production while improved drainage can alleviate these impacts. Outcomes vary across income groups, with risks of crop loss being greatest for the poor. We discuss the need for planning models to consider the interacting benefits and risks of infrastructure investments within a local political economy to better inform coastal adaptation decisions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Variation in elevation, poverty and salinity across six case-study polders in Bangladesh’s coastal zone.
Fig. 2: Interacting flood hazard, vulnerability and infrastructure interventions influence the distribution of climate impacts.
Fig. 3: A typical simulation of future climate hazards and impacts on crop production for six polders assuming no embankment rehabilitation investment.
Fig. 4: Differences in average crop income loss between socioeconomic groups across scenarios and polders.
Fig. 5: Spatial variations in the effect of embankment investment and removing waterlogging and salinity on crop income.

Data availability

The data generated for this study are available within the paper and Supplementary Information. Data analysed from third-party sources are available, but restrictions may apply to the availability of some of these data, which were accessed under specific agreements associated with the current study.

Code availability

Code used to undertake our analysis can be found at


  1. Mora, C. et al. Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 1062–1071 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. AghaKouchak, A. et al. How do natural hazards cascade to cause disasters? Nature 561, 458–460 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Brammer, H. Agriculture and food production in polder areas. Water Int. 8, 74–81 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Flood Action Plan 4 (FAP 4). Southwest Area Water Resources Management Project, Final Report (People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Ministry of Irrigation, Water Development and Flood Control, 1993).

  5. Afroz, S., Cramb, R. & Grünbühel, C. Exclusion and counter-exclusion: the struggle over shrimp farming in a coastal village in Bangladesh. Dev. Change 48, 692–720 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Adnan, S. in Water, Sovereignty and Borders: Fresh and Salt in Asia and Oceania (eds Ghosh, D. et al.) 104–124 (Routledge, 2009).

  7. Paprocki, K. & Cons, J. Life in a shrimp zone: aqua- and other cultures of Bangladesh’s coastal landscape. J. Peasant Stud. 41, 1109–1130 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Nowreen, S., Jalal, M. R. & Shah Alam Khan, M. Historical analysis of rationalizing south west coastal polders of Bangladesh. Water Policy 16, 264–279 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Swapan, M. S. H. & Gavin, M. A desert in the delta: participatory assessment of changing livelihoods induced by commercial shrimp farming in Southwest Bangladesh. Ocean Coast. Manage. 54, 45–54 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Grey, D. & Sadoff, C. W. Sink or swim? Water security for growth and development. Water Policy 9, 545–571 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dadson, S. et al. Water security, risk, and economic growth: insights from a dynamical systems model. Water Resour. Res. 53, 6425–6438 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hall, J. W. et al. Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science 346, 429–430 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Di Baldassarre, G. et al. Water shortages worsened by reservoir effects. Nat. Sustain. 1, 617–622 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Palmer, M. A., Liu, J., Matthews, J. H., Mumba, M. & D’Odorico, P. Manage water in a green way. Science 349, 584–585 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Tortajada, C. Water infrastructure as an essential element for human development. Int. J. Water Resour. Dev. 30, 8–19 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Zeitoun, M. et al. Reductionist and integrative research approaches to complex water security policy challenges. Glob. Environ. Change 39, 143–154 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Howe, C. et al. Paradoxical infrastructures: ruins, retrofit, and risk. Sci. Technol. Human Values 41, 547–565 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gleick, P. H. Global freshwater resources: soft-path solutions for the 21st century. Science 302, 1524–1528 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Eriksen, S. et al. Adaptation interventions and their effect on vulnerability in developing countries: help, hindrance or irrelevance? World Dev. 141, 105383 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Anand, N., Gupta, A. & Appel, H. The Promise of Infrastructure (Duke Univ. Press, 2018).

  21. Thacker, S. et al. Infrastructure for sustainable development. Nat. Sustain. 2, 324–331 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Poff, N. L. et al. Sustainable water management under future uncertainty with eco-engineering decision scaling. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 25–34 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Winemiller, K. O. et al. Balancing hydropower and biodiversity in the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong. Science 351, 128–129 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Loftus, A. Water (in)security: securing the right to water. Geographical J. 181, 350–356 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Haasnoot, M. et al. Investments under non-stationarity: economic evaluation of adaptation pathways. Climatic Change (2019).

  26. Hino, M. & Hall, J. W. Real options analysis of adaptation to changing flood risk: structural and nonstructural measures. ASCE ASME J. Risk Uncertain. Eng. Syst. A 3, 04017005 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Borgomeo, E., Hall, J. W. & Salehin, M. Avoiding the water-poverty trap: insights from a conceptual human–water dynamical model for coastal Bangladesh. Int. J. Water Resour. Dev. 34, 900–922 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Verschuur, J., Koks, E. E., Haque, A. & Hall, J. W. Prioritising resilience policies to reduce welfare losses from natural disasters: a case study for coastal Bangladesh. Glob. Environ. Change 65, 102179 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Lázár, A. N. et al. Agricultural livelihoods in coastal Bangladesh under climate and environmental change—a model framework. Environ. Sci. Process. Impacts 17, 1018–1031 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Paprocki, K. Threatening dystopias: development and adaptation regimes in Bangladesh. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 108, 955–973 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Yearbook of Agricultural Statistics-2016 (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Statistics and Information Division, Ministry of Planning, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2017).

  32. Haque, A., Kay, S. & Nicholls, R. J. in Ecosystem Services for Well-Being in Deltas: Integrated Assessment for Policy Analysis (eds Nicholls, R. J. et al.) 293–314 (Springer, 2018).

  33. Adnan, M. S. G., Haque, A. & Hall, J. W. Have coastal embankments reduced flooding in Bangladesh? Sci. Total Environ. 682, 405–416 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. National Water Resources Database (NWRD) (Bangladesh Water Resources Planning Organization, 2018).

  35. Census of Agriculture 2008 (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Planning Division, Ministry of Planning, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2011).

  36. Dasgupta, S., Hossain, M. M., Huq, M. & Wheeler, D. Climate change and soil salinity: the case of coastal Bangladesh. Ambio 44, 815–826 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Salehin, M. et al. in Ecosystem Services for Well-Being in Deltas: Integrated Assessment for Policy Analysis (eds Nicholls, R. J. et al.) 333–347 (Springer, 2018).

  38. Rabbani, G., Rahman, A. & Mainuddin, K. Salinity-induced loss and damage to farming households in coastal Bangladesh. Int. J. Glob. Warm. 5, 400–415 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Saline Soils of Bangladesh (Soil Resource Development Institute, SRMAF Project, Ministry of Agriculture, 2010).

  40. Alam, M. S., Sasaki, N. & Datta, A. Waterlogging, crop damage and adaptation interventions in the coastal region of Bangladesh: a perception analysis of local people. Environ. Dev. 23, 22–32 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Farr, T. G. et al. The shuttle radar topography mission. Rev. Geophys. (2007).

  42. Poverty in Bangladesh: Building on Progress (World Bank and Asian Development Bank, 2002).

  43. Hall, J. W., Brown, S., Nicholls, R. J., Pidgeon, N. F. & Watson, R. T. Proportionate adaptation. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 833–834 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Development Project Proforma/Proposal (DPP) for Blue Gold Program (BWDB Component) (Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Ministry of Water Resources, Bangladesh Water Development Board, 2013).

  45. del Ninno, C., Dorosh, P., Smith, L. & Roy, D. The 1998 Floods in Bangladesh Disaster Impacts, Household Coping Strategies, and Response Research Report (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001).

  46. van Staveren, M. F., Warner, J. F. & Shah Alam Khan, M. Bringing in the tides. From closing down to opening up delta polders via tidal river management in the southwest delta of Bangladesh. Water Policy 19, 147–164 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Adnan, M. S. G., Talchabhadel, R., Nakagawa, H. & Hall, J. W. The potential of tidal river management for flood alleviation in south western Bangladesh. Sci. Total Environ. 731, 138747 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. Auerbach, L. W. et al. Flood risk of natural and embanked landscapes on the Ganges–Brahmaputra tidal delta plain. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 153–157 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 Draft Report (Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2017).

  50. Brouwer, R., Akter, S., Brander, L. & Haque, E. Socioeconomic vulnerability and adaptation to environmental risk: a case study of climate change and flooding in Bangladesh. Risk Anal. 27, 313–326 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Bangladesh Vision 2021 (Centre for Policy Dialogue, 2007).

  52. Project Information Document (PID) Appraisal Stage: Coastal Embankment Improvement Project—Phase 1 (CEIP-1) (World Bank, 2013).

  53. Hallegatte, S., Vogt-Schilb, A., Bangalore, M. & Rozenberg, J. Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters (World Bank, 2017).

    Google Scholar 

  54. Di Baldassarre, G. et al. Sociohydrology: scientific challenges in addressing the sustainable development goals. Water Resour. Res. 55, 6327–6355 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Nicholls, R. J. et al. Integrated assessment of social and environmental sustainability dynamics in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta, Bangladesh. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. 183, 370–381 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Payo, A. et al. Modeling daily soil salinity dynamics in response to agricultural and environmental changes in coastal Bangladesh. Earths Future 5, 495–514 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. Brown, S. & Nicholls, R. J. Subsidence and human influences in mega deltas: the case of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna. Sci. Total Environ. 527–528, 362–374 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Bangladesh Poverty Maps (Zila Upazila) (World Bank, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and World Food Programme, 2010).

Download references


We thank the REACH coastal risk team for their support and contributions through discussions, accessing data and facilitating field visits. We thank A. Allen for preparing Figs. 2 and 4 and M. Rahman for providing helpful references and comments. We also thank G. Kuczera for supporting the implementation of the eMoga optimization algorithm. We thank M. Mainuddin for comments that greatly improved the manuscript. This research was jointly funded by the REACH programme, which is itself funded by UK Aid from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries (programme code 201880) (supported authors E.J.B., M.S.G.A., M.S.A.K., M.S. and J.W.H.) and CSIRO through its Water Security Research Program (E.J.B.). The views expressed and information contained in this article are not necessarily those of or endorsed by FCDO, which can accept no responsibility for such views or information or for any reliance placed on them.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



E.J.B. and J.W.H. designed the study. E.J.B. and J.W.H. conducted most of the analysis, with input from M.S.G.A. E.J.B. wrote most of the manuscript, with input from all authors, who helped shape the overall narrative, contributed text, provided references and produced or contributed to figures.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emily J. Barbour.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Sustainability thanks Joyce Chen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information, Figs. 1–11 and Tables 1–8.

Reporting Summary.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Barbour, E.J., Adnan, M.S.G., Borgomeo, E. et al. The unequal distribution of water risks and adaptation benefits in coastal Bangladesh. Nat Sustain 5, 294–302 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing