In this paper we focus on the principle of community inclusion in water and ecological resource governance and document the negative impacts of its absence, in Chapra village, Bangladesh, on sustainable development and livelihood security. This community depends heavily on common property resources such as wild plant foods, fish and ‘natural’ crop fertilizers derived from river siltation and other sources. For the vast majority of people in Chapra, these common ecological resources create the ability to effectively match livelihood strategies to the conditions of both dry and rainy seasons. However, this socioecological livelihood pattern is increasingly undermined by the hydropolitics and top–down water management practices that prevail throughout the Ganges–Brahmaputra Basin in Bangladesh. These practices lead to ecosystem failures and ecological resource degradation which in turn cause survival challenges for the marginalized people who constitute the vast majority of the population. In this paper we explicitly seek to answer the question: how might community inclusion in governance processes help protect ecological integrity and common property resources and thereby support an alternative and more sustainable form of development for the region? In order to answer this question we first document the nature of livelihood practices in Chapra, based on 1 year of fieldwork, and then outline the mismatch that now occurs between livelihood practices, ecological characteristics and governance practices. We conclude with the argument that greater community inclusion in governance must be part of the solution to existing problems and we propose specific governance reform measures to facilitate community inclusion.