“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

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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