Hard-hit by climate change, Bangladesh finds solution in floating gardens

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Paradise in peril

Where the Ganges and Bramhaputra rivers converge at the Bay of Bengal, they form a vast fertile delta. Sediment brought down from the Himalayas means this has long been a region of agricultural plenty. But as climate change pushes up the sea level and storms become more frequent and more severe, its inhabitants and way of life are among the most threatened on the planet.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Farewell to farming

As saltwater seeps into once-fertile land, farmers are giving up agriculture and looking for new ways to make a living. Some relocate to urban areas to take low-paid jobs in factories producing cheap clothing for the West. Others are turning to aquaculture to supply another European consumer market — prawns. But the impact of shrimp farming on the delta coast is hastening its destruction.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Traditional technology

Some families, though, are turning to a more traditional, and less harmful strategy to make the most of their changing environment. Aquatic plants and straw are woven together to create a floating platform on which crops are planted. Bangla Delta farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years. But with climate change, this ancient technology has become a cutting-edge solution.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Family fortunes

Women and men work together to build the rafts. This farmer in Pirojpun shows the delicately wrapped seedlings she's preparing to plant on her floating garden.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Organic and recyclable

Leafy vegetables, okra, gourd, eggplant, pumpkin and onions all thrive on the raft gardens. Out on the water, they are less vulnerable to pests and don't require chemical fertilizers. Each raft lasts around three months. Then, it's hauled ashore, broken down, and used to fertilize crops on land.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

From alien invader to savior

These days, the garden rafts are built on a base of water hyacinth. A voracious invasive species from the Amazon, the water hyacinth is upsetting the balance of ecosystems in many parts of the world. But its resistance to salt water, buoyancy and sheer abundance make it the ideal material for floating farms.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Living liferafts

Hari Podo and his family lived on a hyacinth raft for two months when a giant flood hit in 1988. "Humans to one side and domestic animals to the other," he recalls. "We slept and cooked food on the floating plants." Such floods are becoming an ever-greater threat. "Seasons have changed," Podo says. "Nowadays rain is heavier than before."

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Taking back territory

Other delta communities are working to reclaim ground lost to the waters. The village of Nazir Bazar was created by piling soil onto swampy ground and draining it with a system of canals to create both farmland and residential areas.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Close to the elements

A farmer in Nazir Bazar looks skyward for clues as to when the next downpour will come. His boat is loaded with bananas grown on reclaimed land. The canals that drain the village's farmland also provide a transport network, bringing produce to market and children to school.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Learning to adapt

Nazir Bazar farmer Giassudin Saddar has seen his home transformed over the years, but is optimistic about the future and his community's ability to adapt. "Whatever we face — rivers, canals, rain, floods — we have learned to live with a changing environment," he says.

Bangladesh is on the front line of climate change, as its low-lying delta farmlands face surging floods. But floating gardens – a traditional form of hydroponics – is offering a lifeline to some farming families.

In summer 1988, a surging flood hit Bangladesh. Then, it was the worst the country had suffered for years.

Nature and Environment | 15.01.2019

Hari Podo, a farmer from Gopalganj district, and his family had no place to escape the rising waters, he recalls. So, they turned to a practice honed by his ancestors.

Podo collected water hyacinth, a floating plant common in the canals, and built a raft a few meters wide and about 10 meters long. With his family and animals, he stepped aboard.

"We lived on the hyacinth raft," Podo told DW. "Humans to one side and domestic animals to the other. We slept and cooked food on the floating plants. We lived there for about two months, on water."

Nature and Environment | 04.01.2019

Back then, reviving traditional floating gardens saved Podo's family. Now, as flooding becomes an ever-greater threat, it could save many more livelihoods.

Hari Podo navigates between floating gardens, much like the one he and his family took refuge on 30 years ago

Between the devil…

"Seasons have changed," Podo said. "Nowadays rain is heavier than before."

Bangladesh is trapped between the melting ice caps of the Himalayas, increasingly violent monsoons from the north, and the rising tides of Bay of Bengal to the south.

"People have started to adapt," Zahid Shashoto of Uttaran, a development NGO based in Satkhira, told DW. "Maybe farmers don't know the problem, but they are looking for solutions as they have done for centuries."

In the south, the rising sea level combined with natural subsidence is letting salt water into the once-fertile Ganges-Bramhaputra delta soil; into farmer's fields and wells.

Between 2000 and 2009, salt-water intrusion crept 15 kilometers north of the southern coast. Today, during dry season, it reaches 160 kilometers inland and threatens 40 percent of farmland in southern Bangladesh.

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With climate change putting this rich and fertile environment under pressure, farmers are being forced to adapt

"Salty waters harm agriculture," said Mahmud Shamsuddoha head of the Center for Participatory Research and Development in Dhaka. "The more you go the south, the more you see that agriculture is not profitable anymore."

Shamsuddoha told DW that over the last decade, agriculture's share in GDP has fallen from 50 percent to around 20 percent.

From agriculture to aquaculture

Some farmers are giving up and looking for work in urban areas. Others are turning to shrimp farming.

Joggadish Mallick lives in the tiny village of Parmagur Khali in the Satkhira district. At 59, he's seen his home change dramatically over his decades.

"Farmers are struggling," he said, leading the way to his shrimp ponds with bare feet stepping nimbly onto narrow, slippery mud dykes. "Most of them are leaving the village and are migrating to cities. Some work in garment industries in Dhaka, others pull a van in Khulna."

For those left behind, shrimp farming is a better source of income than the back-breaking work of farming unproductive land. "Today we are not in deep poverty. By farming shrimps we are better-off," Mallick told DW.

Joggadish Mallick says shrimp farming has kept his family out of poverty — but at a cost to the environment

Shrimps are now the country's second-biggest export — after clothing — mostly going to the European Union. But aquaculture has a high social and environmental cost.

"The beauty of our area is long gone, there are hardly any trees here," Mallick said. "There were a lot of people, we had a good life. Now, due to saltwater intrusion and shrimp farm ponds, such beautiful environment is disappearing."

And with the coast eroding fast under onslaught of unusually forceful cyclones, even shrimp farming's days could be numbered. Mallick believes it is only a matter of time before his and the surrounding villages are deserted.

Building on the swamp

In districts like Gopalganj, Jessore and Kuhlna, saltwater intrusion isn't yet a problem. But floods are. With farmers' futures no longer certain, some are adapting to the new conditions.

Giassudin Saddar grows bananas, guava, coconuts, mangoes and okra. His patch of land is surrounded tall, leafy trees and a maze of canals. "We love our rivers and our canals, we are used to this life," Saddar said proudly.

Boats moor at Nazir Bazar's floating market, where farmers sell produce grown on top of the rising waters

His village, Nazir Bazar in the district of Piorjpun, rises from land that was once marshy forest. Villagers piled soil onto the swampy ground and dug canals to keep it drained, creating a solid base for their homes and gardens.

Kids dive from the shady banks of the canals into their greenish waters. They use boats to get to school, just as their parents make the journey to market.

Unlike Mallick, the shrimp farmer, Saddar is optimistic about the future. "Whatever we face — rivers, canals, rain, floods — we have learned to live with a changing environment," he told DW.

Living rafts

For others, the answer is a traditional form of hydroponics unique to this part of the world.

For hundreds of years, villagers have been using paddy straw and aquatic plants to create islands of organic material up to around 20 meters (65 feet) in length.

The technique was dying out. But now farmers see it as a way to cope with the changing weather and increasingly threatening floods.

Farmers in the Bangla Delta have used hydroponics for centuries. Now, this unique technology is needed more than ever

Men and women work side-by-side to build their living rafts, and their produce is organic. Growing on the water, the crops are less vulnerable by pests and don't require fertilizers. Each floating platforms last around three months. After that, it's brought ashore and used to fertilize crops grown on land.

In this way, water hyacinth, an invasive species that thrives even when salt contaminates the water, and is generally seen as a pest, has become something of a hero plant, forming the perfect base for floating gardens. 

Shamsuddoha points out that the rafts are only a solution for particular environments and says he fears that as the sea level keeps rising, the increasing salinization could prove toxic even for hardy plants like the water hyacinth.

But for now, for some families at least, floating agriculture has proved a lifeline that a recent report from the Deakin University in Australia says, "could enormously support a farming community in achieving sustainable development."