“Bangladesh is a treasure trove for water experts.” Last year, we spoke with Neeltje Kielen about her three-year tenure as the Delegated Representative for Water (DR) at the Dutch embassy in Bangladesh. With the first year behind her, it’s time for a check-in. How has she experienced this past year, what stands out to her and what are her plans for the coming year?


“What I expected came true,” begins Neeltje. “As a water expert, you can truly lose your heart here; it’s like a vast treasure trove.” The combination of specialised expertise, the dynamic nature of the country and the transition to integrated collaborative partnerships “make me excited to go to work everyday”.

Meaningful collaboration and phasing out of development aid

The collaboration between the governments of the Netherlands and Bangladesh has a robust history, but with Bangladesh’s expected transition to a middle-income country by 2026, the development aid (ODA) is phasing out. “I am currently drafting a plan for the final extension of the SIDBP program (Support to the Implementation of the Bangladesh Delta Programme). This involves assessing current operations and planning our collaborative efforts in the years to come. It’s crucial to determine what the Netherlands should continue to support and what responsibilities Bangladesh can take on until the full transfer is achieved. This with a view of continued partnership also after the Netherlands has phased out ODA”, explains Neeltje.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The partnership, as it stands, is finite, yet there’s still a tremendous amount to be done. The delta of Bangladesh is as dynamic as its economy and population; the impacts of climate change are evident, and Bangladesh is keen to implement the Delta Programme effectively. Since the start of the Bangladesh Delta Programme, they’ve embraced this plan and are structurally working on its implementation. “While bureaucratic processes are often labelled as slow, I find this relative.”, Neeltje notes. In the Netherlands, for instance, the trajectory from the initiative to the actual opening of the Haringvliet sluice took nearly 20 years. The Dutch central government leads, but implementation is decentralised, involving entities such as RWS, water boards and municipalities. In contrast, Bangladesh centralises everything, which can be surprisingly efficient with the right approach.

Private investments for the water programme

It’s evident that Bangladesh cannot finance the water programme, accounting for 2.5% of its GDP alone. “Hence, we are now focusing on private investments. It would be incredible if we could achieve 20% of the total scope with the support of private entities. “I am currently collaborating with the World Bank’s Water Resource Group 2030 to explore how the Netherlands can contribute to water treatment plants for several economic zones in Bangladesh. The eagerness of the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority to partner, even to the extent of proposing an MoU with the Netherlands, is heartening. I am actively forging connections with Dutch companies and establishing frameworks for private investment. This world of business case-driven enterprises is completely new for me”, Neeltje explains.

Proud of the golden triangle

“My prior experience with the Delta Programme has been directly applicable to the Bangladesh Delta Programme. My experience in government allows me to understand and work well with the systems here, helping me make connections. In the ‘golden triangle,’ I’ve secured a position that enables swift action to enhance private sector involvement, knowledge exchange and further development of the Bangladesh Delta Programme. Reflecting on the past year, I am most proud of expanding this network”, Neeltje adds.

2024: PPP & continuing the SIDBP-programme

The forthcoming year is dedicated to refining the plan for Dutch governmental collaboration in Bangladesh for the final phase of the SIDBP program. Another goal for 2024 is to establish an initial Public-Private Partnership agreement (PPP) to explore its efficacy for Dutch company engagement in Bangladesh.

Still much to accomplish

With one year down and many more ahead, Neeltje continues her journey in Bangladesh as the Delegated Representative for Water at the Netherlands Embassy, focusing on Dutch company involvement and the Delta Programme execution. She’s exploring Bangladesh’s vast treasure trove of opportunities for water experts along the way.

Partners for Water Subsidy scheme

Partners for Water (PfW) keeps an eye on Neeltje’s journey. On 2 April, a Bangladesh Sector Meeting was organised to explore opportunities, challenges and collaboration prospects in operation and maintenance in Bangladesh. At this meeting, PfW asked for those with innovative plans to enhance water security in Bangladesh and globally, to apply for the PfW subsidy scheme.

Apply for the subsidy scheme

The Bangladesh platform meeting held in The Hague on 2 April 2024 brought together 36 water experts from various sectors to discuss breaking the Build-Neglect-Rebuild (BNR) cycle in Bangladesh. The meeting explored the root causes of the cycle, including issues such as insufficient operation and maintenance (O&M) funding, delayed emergency responses, lack of asset management systems, and inadequate sediment management. Participants emphasized the need for a systemic and holistic approach, involving both top-down and bottom-up strategies, to address these challenges. The meeting also highlighted the importance of private sector engagement, social inclusion, and sustainable financing in infrastructure projects.

Key Takeaways:

  • Holistic Approaches: Participants stressed the need for a systemic approach that integrates O&M with long-term strategies to break the BNR cycle effectively.
  • Community Involvement: Ownership and involvement of local communities were highlighted as crucial for successful water management projects.
  • Sustainable Financing: Sustainable financing models, including public-private partnerships and performance-based contracting, were emphasised to ensure long-term maintenance of infrastructure.
  • Social Inclusion: In order to break the BNR cycle and ensure sustainable and effective water management, it’s imperative to create local ownership by building on local knowledge and practices, facilitating inclusive decision-making processes, and engaging with communities in the long run.
  • Collective Efforts/Agenda: Tackling the BNR cycle requires collaboration among governments, civil society, and the private sector, with a focus on consensus-building and long-term planning

Participants in the meeting concluded that there is no ‘magic bullet’ solution and advocated for an agenda-driven dialogue and a long-term process involving all stakeholders to effectively tackle the challenges and move towards adaptive and inclusive asset management in Bangladesh.

If you are interested in finding out more about the dialogues and insights in this meeting, download the more detailed report through the link below.

Download the full report

Both actively engaged in supporting the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP2100), we spoke with Neeltje Kielen and Richard Jorissen about the Support Implementation Bangladesh Delta Plan (SIBDP) mission in March

From their respective offices in Dhaka and the Netherlands, they elaborated on the significant collaboration and knowledge sharing between the Netherlands and Bangladesh and explored plans to continue this valuable partnership

As the Delegated Representative for Water on behalf of the Partners for Water Programme, Neeltje is part of the Netherlands Embassy team in Dhaka where she shapes the water agenda and oversees the transition away from official development aid. As a programme director at Rijkswaterstaat and equipped with extensive expertise in water safety and flood defenses, Richard provides guidance and shares his knowledge for the implementation of the Bangladesh Delta Plan.

Support Implementation Bangladesh Delta Plan

The Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP) is aimed at creating a resilient and prosperous delta region and both Neeltje and Richard are deeply involved with its implementation. Neeltje explains: “Through the SIBDP-programme, the embassy provides support to the Bangladesh government in implementing the BDP. This includes direct budget support and technical assistance from a consortium of Dutch and Bangladeshi consultancies. The support and shared expertise of Rijkswaterstaat is funded through the Partners for Water programme and linked to the SIBDP-programme.”

Mission March

After four years, the completion of the SIDBP-programme is on the horizon. That’s why Richard traveled to Bangladesh last March to address the various aspects necessary for a successful continuation of the collaboration. This visit was the follow up of a visit in December 2022. Richard explains: “With the programme ending in June, our focus this time was on the post-SIBDP phase and building relationships with our Bangladeshi counterpart, the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), who are ultimately responsible for implementing the BDP.”

He enthusiastically highlights their joint exploration on coastal and river management. Two major themes from which the Netherlands already learned valuable lessons. Richard asks: “How do we prevent Bangladesh from encountering the same pitfalls as the Netherlands? Nature cannot always be constrained. We are now paying a costly price to learn that”. He advocates for maintaining such knowledge exchanges in the coming years. In fact, during the mission, two concrete future collaboration proposals emerged: infrastructure rationalization and knowledge sharing in the field of ‘Adaptive Delta Management’.

Adaptive Delta Management

“What is Adaptive Delta Management (ADM)? Well, it’s all about long-term strategies that provide flexibility for future decision-making, but also about recognizing the importance of nature as a key pillar in future water engineering projects”, explains Richard. He goes on: “Within ADM, we employ the concept of Adaptive Delta Design (ADD). This is the bridge to implement a long-term strategy in such a way that you still have choices available in the future.” These approaches haven’t always been the norm. “In the Netherlands, we are currently addressing the negative consequences of our last 200 years of river management. Now, we’re sharing these experiences with Bangladesh”, says Richard.

Different Pathways

An integral part of ADM is exploring and developing different pathways for future interventions. Neeltje explains that the debate in this field is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. And the discussion amongst academia goes beyond just focusing on floods and riverbed subsidence, it also considers the implications for biodiversity conservation.

Neeltje emphasises the importance of translating these discussions into practical implementation: “There are still many practitioners who prefer steel and concrete over a natural meandering river. While the Netherlands already made its choices in the past, they are still largely open for Bangladesh. But how do you translate current knowledge into action? This question is relevant for both Bangladesh and the Netherlands, making the knowledge exchange so intriguing”.

Planning the future

Thanks to sedimentation from the rivers, Bangladesh is not only losing land, but it also regenerates explains Richard. “There are numerous developments and choices that the country is currently facing”, Neeltje adds. She continues: “The decisions being made now will determine whether the coastal growth through natural sedimentation remains a viable pathway or if this pathway will be cut off. We have learned that the ‘adaptivity’ is not only important in design but also in planning. That’s why we always strive to incorporate the principles of ADM into the various projects and programmes in which the Netherlands provides support.”

Lessons learned

When asked about the lessons learned during the government-to-government (G2G) partnership, Richard easily responds: “It’s truly learning by doing. The strength of the Bangladesh Delta Plan lies in its comprehensive and top-level integration. However, this also means that its implementation requires a significant effort. It demands challenging horizontal and vertical coordination. We can contribute to that, but at the same time, this scope is unprecedented for us.” Neeltje continues: “Indeed, when it comes to horizontal and vertical coordination, the journey is still in its early stages. It is crucial to take these steps collaborative.”

Richard emphasizes that this G2G collaboration is also incredibly instructive for the Netherlands: “The scale and challenges of the BDP go beyond what we have experienced. What can we learn from it for the major transitions we will face in the Netherlands?” he ponders. After two months in Bangladesh, Neeltje has also learned that patience is a virtue: “We are sometimes accustomed to impatience, but it is truly important to adapt to the pace and allow these complex matters the time they need.”

What’s next?

“We are currently working on a one-and-a-half-year extension to continue the current phase of the SIBDP. During this time, the Delta Wing will formulate what they need in terms of knowledge and skills to lead the Delta Program after this period”, says Neeltje. As Bangladesh transitions into a middle-income country, the relationship between the Netherlands and Bangladesh is shifting from traditional development cooperation to a partnership focused on sustainable trade, investments and knowledge exchange. This also presents opportunities for the Dutch water sector.

Richard adds: “While construction companies in the Dutch water sector may not see immediate opportunities, this transition will definitely bring new possibilities for consultancy, advisory services and research”. Embracing shared expertise and fostering a resilient partnership, the Netherlands and Bangladesh are creating a pathway towards a prosperous and sustainable future.

Neeltje Kielen is the new Delegated Representative for Water (DR) at the Netherlands Embassy in Bangladesh

On the 4th of March she’ll make the move to Dhaka, to stay for 3 years. To get to know Neeltje a bit better, we sat down with her to hear about her plans.

‘I’ve always worked in the field of water, for governments and international organizations. My first job was in Punjab, Pakistan. An interesting assignment for a research institute, on the influence of waterlogging and salinity on agricultural production. After working, amongst others, for the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Italy and the Environment Agency in England I’ve been with Rijkswaterstaat for the past fifteen years before joining RVO.’

Balanced relationship

‘My position in Bangladesh mainly focuses on supporting the Bengal government with executing their Delta Program by providing our support and expertise. After all, the Dutch have been working on our delta since – basically – the Middle Ages. Therefore, our governmental organizations, knowledge institutes and companies have a lot to offer. Now that Bangladesh is predicted to becoming a middle-income country in the next few years it means our relationship with Bangladesh will transform into a more balanced one based on working together in the ‘golden triangle’ of government, knowledge institutes and the private sector.’

Process and content

‘A large part of my time with Rijkswaterstaat I worked on the Dutch delta programme. That experience I’ll be able to use as DR in Bangladesh. When it comes to knowledge, policy, or implementation, process and content always go hand in hand. For example, when I read “It’s our goal to provide millions of people with clean drinking water”, I immediately think: who’s goal is this, how do you want to accomplish this, who gets to participate and who gets to take decisions? Content-based objectives raise process-based questions – and vice versa.

Action is needed

‘I’m a strategic thinker who likes to analyze complex playing fields. To have an overview, learn the rules, and get to know the players. And then decide which chess piece to move at which time to make sure good interventions are made. However, when I arrive in Dhaka I can’t sit around and only study. Action is also needed. For example, on how we’re going to continue with the currently ending SIDBP-program (Support to the Implementation of the Bangladesh Delta Programme).’

Discover together

‘Adaptive water management is crucial. Social-economic developments go fast, we’re dealing with a climate and ecological crisis: we’re investing in an unknown future. If you do this in adaptive way with short cycles, taking the latest insights and expected developments into account, you can make small but meaningful interventions towards a shared vision. How we can give this form in Bangladesh is something we’ll need to discover together.’

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