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Bangladesh - farming the flood

As one of the largest deltas in the world, Bangladesh has always suffered from floods, cyclones, and storm surges during the monsoon season. But with changes in the global climate, flooding and riverbank erosion are becoming more severe as rainfall rates change and the sea level rises. With lives and livelihoods increasingly under threat, adaptation is essential if vulnerable communities are to cope with their changing environment.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely-populated countries in the world, forcing many of the poorest to live on unstable riverbanks and flood-prone areas: more than 100,000 people are forced to move each year as their villages and livelihoods are washed away. In 2004, flooding across two-fifths of the country destroyed almost four-fifths of the crops leaving ten million homeless.

Floating gardens have been designed to help farmers adapt to flooding (Practical Action)
Floating gardens have been designed to help farmers adapt to flooding
Practical Action

Located at the meeting point of the Brahmaputra and Tista Rivers, Gaibandha District, in the north of Bangladesh, is particularly susceptible to flooding and riverbank erosion during the annual monsoon season. "The communities I work with are keen to find a way to adapt to their changing environment," says Nazmul Chowdhury, Practical Action's project officer in Bangladesh. Despite their precarious situation, he adds "they are not sitting back and waiting for help." Floating gardens and pumpkin cultivation are just two innovative projects that Practical Action, an international NGO, has developed in partnership with local communities to help them adapt to riverbank erosion and flooding by strengthening their livelihoods.

Floating gardens

The floating garden, for example, allows farmers to grow food on flooded land, as well as ponds, canals and other water courses. Simple and relatively inexpensive, an eight by one meter raft is constructed from water hyacinth, a common weed found in many parts of Bangladesh. A layer of soil, compost and manure is then placed on the surface of the raft, in which vegetables such as gourd and okra are planted. The rafts only last one year, but old ones are often used as compost for growing crops in the following dry season.

Tare Begum lives on a flood embankment on the Brahmaputra river and, in the past, has struggled to grow enough food for her family on the infertile and flood-prone land. But, after receiving training on vegetable production and floating garden construction, enough food was produced to feed her family and the surplus sold at market to provide a profit. "This has made a great difference to my life," she explains. "Now I have enough food during the wet season and I can give some to help my relatives as well."

Picking pumpkins

Compost-filled holes enable farmers to grow pumpkins on infertile sandbars (Practical Action)
Compost-filled holes enable farmers to grow pumpkins on infertile sandbars
Practical Action

When the waters subside, silted sand plains are left behind. These 'char' lands are infertile, but 'sandbar cropping' is a simple, innovative and very low-cost option: four vegetable seeds are planted into a deep pit in the sand, which is filled with compost. Pumpkins have proved to be particularly suited to these conditions; not only do they yield well but they can also be stored, providing food and income throughout the year.

In 2008, over 1,300 families benefitted from adopting sandbar cropping and more than 160,000 pumpkins were harvested, generating a market value of about US$2 million. And yet each pit costs just 40 cents (32 taka) to prepare, including labour, seeds, manure and compost. "The opportunities and the technology are a blessing for us," Saiful Islam remarks. "It has opened our eyes to see a better life and a new hope to live." Initially, Islam cultivated 50 pits after receiving training and seeds, but then increased this to 433, growing almost 4,000 pumpkins worth more than US$2,000. Now he is passing on this knowledge to support other landless farmers in his area.

Building on success

In order to maximise the impacts of these projects, people are shown how to store and market their excess produce, enabling them to maximise return on investment. Islam, for example, used the profit he made to lease land and invest in fish production and beef fattening. Like Islam, selected people are trained to pass on their new skills to other members of their communities, enabling them to benefit from the technologies and circulate them to a wider area.

By marketing their excess produce farmers can maximise their profits (Practical Action)
By marketing their excess produce farmers can maximise their profits
Practical Action

Floating gardens and pumpkin growing have directly benefitted more than 100,000 people so far. But this has not been easy: at first, many men were wary about women becoming involved with these projects but, after holding focus groups and working with communities and local authorities to demonstrate the benefits, almost 70 per cent of the beneficiaries are now women.

While these initiatives are helping people to cope with the changing environment, "adaptation alone is not the answer," Chowdhury warns. "The stark reality is if the world's poor are not put at the heart of the debate at Copenhagen, those contributing least to the problem will continue to suffer from the devastating effects of climate change."

Date published: September 2009


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