Bangladesh: Coastal farmers come together to convert saline lands into fertile fields
Farmers in coastal areas of Bangladesh have freed the freshwater canals from encroachment to irrigate their fields and are cultivating three crops a year. Some of the farmers have adopted the floating method of vegetable cultivation in ponds for a higher produce. They no longer migrate to cities in search of work.
Rafiqul Islam Montu 16 Jun 2023 6:38 AM GMT
Kalapara (Patuakhali), Bangladesh
On a hot and humid summer afternoon, with pre-monsoon clouds hovering in the horizon, a group of farmers walked back home carrying baskets full of ripe papaya. Their tired lean bodies, drenched in sweat, glistened in the midday sun.
Not too far away, some farmers were busy harvesting papaya, bitter gourd, cucumber, pepper, gourd, and pumpkin from their lush green fields. They were in a tearing hurry to complete the task before sundown as the fresh produce had to reach the market the next morning.
Five years ago, these fields in the coastal village of Kumirmara in Bangladesh, where farmers are now growing a variety of vegetables and fruits, were barren lands infected with saline sea water thereby making them uncultivable.
But due to the grit and determination of farmers in Nilganj Union Council of Kalapara Upazila (Sub-District) of Patuakhali district, their lands have turned fertile and have become a source of livelihood for the local people, who are increasingly facing the brunt of climate change, sea level rise, and rising salinity in coastal villages.
There was a time these farmers could cultivate only paddy during the monsoon season, but now they are growing crops all through the year.
Not only have they freed the freshwater canals from encroachment and taken charge of sluice gates to control water flow, they have also formed local farmer organisations to put pressure on the authorities to address their woes. Some of these farmers have also adopted the floating method of vegetable cultivation in ponds for a higher produce. They no longer migrate to cities in search of work.
“We have done agricultural work for generations. But at one time, due to salinity and lack of fresh water, cultivation in the land stopped. I was forced to migrate to the city and work as a daily wager,” 37-year-old farmer Hemayet Uddin from Kumirmara village, told Gaon Connection. “But now my land is green once again as we have fresh water to irrigate our fields and I have started to cultivate vegetables,” he added.
The same story of transformation is visible in Saudagarpara village of Taltali Upazila (Sub-District) of Barguna District near Kalapara Upazila (Sub-District). Farmers of Padma village in Patharghata upazila (sub-district) of Barguna district have also adopted different farming techniques to combat salinity.
All these coastal villages were affected by salinity ingress and increasing number of cyclones due to climate change and warming of the oceans. Kumirmara village is only 15 kilometres (kms) from the sea, Sawdagarpara village is 10 kms from the sea, whereas Padma village is barely 8 kms from the seashore.
Taking control over freshwater canal
Farmers in coastal villages realised that they need to adopt multiple techniques to address the growing salinity in their areas. And the first thing they decided to do was to get control over the freshwater canal, 10 kms long and 1200 feet (0.36 kms) wide, which was either encroached or under the control of the local influential people.
A freshwater canal in Kumirmara village, which was dug and constructed by the government, was in the possession of influential people for a long time. Thus local farmers could not use its water to irrigate their fields.
With the help of the administration, the farmers freed the canal from encroachment and have now been using it to irrigate and cultivate crops. the possession of the influential people. Apart from the canal, they have also taken control of the sluice gates fixed in the canal to control the flow of saline sea water.
Farmer Zakir Hossain of Kumirmara village has been cultivating a variety of vegetables and fruits on his 200 dismil land which was once affected by salinity ingress. Availability of freshwater has changed his fortunes. And seeing him, a number of other farmers have also gone back to farming.
Coming together as a group
About five years ago, in 2018, some people of Kumirmara village sat down to discuss ways to address declining farming incomes and how to overcome the growing agriculture crisis in the coastal region. They decided to form a farmers’ association and named it ‘Nilganj Adarsh Krishak Samiti’. The main aim of this association was to hold regular meetings and approach the government as a group to address their woes.
Initially this farmers’ association had only a handful of members but gradually the numbers rose and today it has 162 members. But, close to 8,000 farmers of the entire union have come under the scope of agriculture through the initiative of this association.
“We are looking for a way out of a multifaceted crisis. The farmers of the area have come together to revive agriculture. The collective power of farmers has brought us back to the field. We have converted the land, which was not used for cultivation, into three crops a year. Our area is now full of greenery almost throughout the year,” Zakir Hossain, president of Nilganj Adarsh Krishak Samiti, told Gaon Connection.
Farmers adopt floating farming
Abdur Rahim, a 48-year-old fisherman from Patharghata upazila (sub-district), was finding it difficult to continue farming in the wake of increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones. So he started to farm his land to feed his family. But, his crops were getting destroyed due to salinity ingress.
The fisherman learnt about an alternative method of farming to avoid salinity. He started vegetable cultivation by floating method and scaffolding method. Floating method of vegetable cultivation is done in ponds where bamboo and wooden floating structures are built over the water body. Vegetables are grown on top of it to get a loft. This keeps the crops free of salt and yields better produce.
“There have been many changes in our lives as a result of changing climate and increasing natural disasters. Fish are not available in the sea and river like it used to be earlier. Cyclones hit us every now and then. We have to adapt to disasters and find alternative ways of livelihood. Floating method of farming has offered us hope,” said Abdur Rahim.
Thanks to the success of the floating method of farming adopted by Abdur Rahim, several other farmers in the region are taking it up.
Back to the village
Noore Alam had moved to the capital city, Dhaka, to make both the ends meet and feed his family of six. He did odd jobs there and used to return to his native Kumirmara village only during the monsoon season to cultivate paddy on his patch of land.
But thanks to the efforts of Nilganj Adarsh Krishak Samiti, the 35-year-old farmer has returned to his village for good and cultivating his land all through the year. According to him, several other villagers, who used to migrate, have returned to the village and are back to farming.
About eight kilometres away, in the village Sawdagarpara, 34-year-old Noor Daraj has returned to his village. “Due to salt water ingress and lack of irrigation water, agriculture faced a serious crisis in our village. Many people from the village went to the city to work as daily wagers. I also went to Chittagong city to earn a living. But now I am back home and cultivating my land,” said Noor Daraj.
Shahidul Islam, another farmer from Sawdagarpara village has started cultivating vegetables. “Because of the salt water, we were facing losses by cultivating paddy again and again. Fresh water was not available for farming. But after gaining control over the canal, I have started vegetable cultivation instead of paddy. We are getting fresh water for irrigation from the nearby canal,” he said. Many farmers in the village are running small businesses, in addition to farming, to support their families.
An example of climate adaptation
According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Bangladesh ranks seventh among the countries most affected by extreme weather in the last two decades. Rising sea levels, frequent cyclones and other natural hazards threaten the lives of millions of people in Bangladesh. Agriculture is also under threat due to increased salinity and lack of irrigation water. Millions have already been displaced into urban slums or abroad.
“This initiative of coastal farmers in climate-prone areas shows us the solution. The collective initiative of the farmers has changed the agricultural picture of the area. Many farmers depend on agriculture for livelihood. Government and private institutions should stand by the farmers to advance this type of initiative,” Rabiul Alam, an agricultural researcher, told Gaon Connection.
Saiful Islam, climate expert at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, lauded the initiative of farmers. He also suggested that embankments along the long coastline of Bangladesh should be increased and strengthened.
“Mangrove forests should be created in the coastal belt to combat the effects of cyclones and sea level rise. Bangladesh has received ‘‘nothing’’ from the proposed $100 billion allocated by developed countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation,” he complained.