As the flood waters rise, the menu changes
Delta farmers are discovering innovative methods for combating increasingly unpredictable weather
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.”
▲ Floods and uneven rainfall make rice a less certain crop
Villagers in Jessore district use mesh cages for fishing