As the flood waters rise, the menu changes

Delta farm­ers are dis­cov­er­ing in­no­va­tive meth­ods for com­bat­ing in­creas­ingly un­pre­dictable weather

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight | South Asia - By Sarah Marsh BANGLADESH

In the scorch­ing farm­lands of Jes­sore in south-west Bangladesh, a sin­gle co­conut tree stands as a barom­e­ter of cli­mate change. Farmer Du­lal Mon­dal, 70, points about 60cm up the trunk to in­di­cate how high the waters rose the last time the area flooded. “Next time if heavy rain comes I don’t think wa­ter will re­cede as there is no nat­u­ral drain­ing or any­where for it to go,” he said.

For Mon­dal in­creased wa­ter salin­ity, un­even rain­fall and flood­ing are cre­at­ing in­creased uncer­tainty for a whole farm­ing com­mu­nity.

Bangladesh is on the front­line of the cli­mate emer­gency. By 2050, it is pre­dicted that one in seven peo­ple in the coun­try will be dis­placed. The sea level is pro­jected to rise by 50cm over 30 years and Bangladesh may lose about 11% of its land. Deadly storms are al­ready a ques­tion of when, not if.

Here, the cli­mate cri­sis is so pal­pa­ble that the de­bate is not about curb­ing car­bon emis­sions or slow­ing global warm­ing but about how to adapt and sur­vive now.

Mon­dal says that where once rice was the main crop, now farm­ers have taken to fish­ing. Float­ing cages pro­vide a se­cure breed­ing area and if

‘Now I can grow veg­eta­bles while fish­ing, and eat them’

wa­ter lev­els rise, the cages will too, so flood­ing is less of an is­sue.

“About 20 to 30 years ago there would be a min­i­mum of two crops per farm­ing fam­ily but now be­cause of wa­ter­log­ging we have no more than one,” he said. Each cage pro­vides 15,000 taka ($175) in ad­di­tional in­come for its owner a year. It’s also a re­li­able source of food.

“In the last two years there was not too much rain but two years ago we were flooded,” Mon­dal said. “We worry about the fu­ture. If there is heavy rain­fall the wa­ter could re­main logged for a long pe­riod of time and we would have to take shel­ter on main road. We would stay there with our re­main­ing be­long­ings.”

This farm­ing evo­lu­tion is just one of a range of adap­tive prac­tices tak­ing root across south­ern Bangladesh, an area long prone to cy­clones, ris­ing sea lev­els and drought.

“What’s im­por­tant is in­vest­ment in long-term de­vel­op­ment, to help peo­ple adapt to the ef­fects that cli­mate change is hav­ing now and help them to not only sur­vive but thrive in their new cli­mate re­al­ity,” said Adib Hos­sain, the head of pro­grammes im­ple­men­ta­tion at Prac­ti­cal Ac­tion, one of the char­i­ties help­ing to make changes.

In this part of Bangladesh they have helped in­tro­duce not only fish farm­ing in cages but ef­fec­tive fer­tilis­ers to in­crease crop yields and “dyke gar­dens”, a novel farm­ing tech­nique.

The cages, made from in­ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als, have a ca­pac­ity of one cu­bic me­tre and hold up to 300 fish. They are used for two grow­ing sea­sons each year. The fish, fed on duck­weed, oil cake, kitchen waste, rice bran and snails, grow to full size in just a few months.

A woman stand­ing be­side Mon­dal pulls up the mesh cage in which fish jump up and splut­ter around. For the wor­ried farm­ers in this area, fish farm­ing gives a re­as­sur­ing con­stant amid uncer­tainty.

In the nearby district of South Atu­lia land is used for fish­ing, with pools of wa­ter sep­a­rated by a cracked mud path and spiky veg­e­ta­tion. Omal Biswas, 48, has three daugh­ters and an adopted son. He used to farm an an­nual crop of rice and dur­ing the mon­soon he would fish in fresh­wa­ter. Now he is able to make more money with dyke gar­den­ing tech­niques, grow­ing veg­eta­bles be­tween fish pools .

Omal grows sev­eral va­ri­eties of gourd, chillis, In­dian spinach, red ama­ranth and toma­toes. “Be­fore this technology was used I would yield around 20-25,000 taka a year but last year I har­vested 120,000 taka through us­ing dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of veg­eta­bles and grow­ing more in the year.

“Now I can grow veg­eta­bles while fish­ing but I used to ro­tate the land. I eat the veg­eta­bles too,” he said.

With the ad­di­tional in­come he has bought six cows. “The cost of liv­ing is ris­ing and the cost of pro­duc­tion is in­creas­ing so it is a good por­tion of rev­enue,” he said.

Prac­ti­cal Ac­tion isn’t the only or­gan­i­sa­tion work­ing to sup­port farm­ers. The World Bank’s Na­tional Agri­cul­ture Technology Pro­gram (NATP 2) has also helped peo­ple adopt re­silient farm­ing meth­ods.

An­cient agri­cul­tural meth­ods such as float­ing beds, sow­ing crops on is­lands made of wa­ter hy­acinth, are be­ing used to grow cu­cum­bers, gourds and aubergines. The beds are raised above the reach of tidal surges and the trenches be­tween them serve as pools to farm fish and ducks.

Oth­ers, such as Ru­bina Khatun, have turned to shrimp farm­ing. Prac­ti­cal Ac­tion helped in­tro­duce the prac­tice of us­ing deeper wa­ter so the tem­per­a­ture is more con­stant, and adding a fer­tiliser made from oil cake, date juice and sugar cane, among other things, to in­crease yields.

“I am not sure what I would do with­out it now,” Khatun said. “But this type of farm­ing is weather-de­pen­dent. We need rain. If there is less rain­fall salin­ity in­creases.”

For her the con­cept of cli­mate change is a world away. “I can feel it in terms of rain but I am not aware of this. I have heard non-gov­ern­ment-or­gan­i­sa­tions talk­ing about it but just as a con­cept. All I know is shrimp farm­ing is a ma­jor source of in­come out of all the ones re­main­ing, so it’s a re­as­sur­ance.”

MA­JOR­ITY WORLD/GETTY

▲ Floods and un­even rain­fall make rice a less cer­tain crop

SARAH MARSH

Vil­lagers in Jes­sore district use mesh cages for fish­ing

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