Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change. Flooding regularly affects about 1 million people. One prediction is that by 2050 about 20 percent of the available land will be permanently submerged under water.
More than 100,000 people are forced to move regularly as villages and livelihoods succumb to rising water levels during the monsoon season. Such enforced migration, in turn, enlarges the urban informal economy.
During the monsoon season, much of the farmland in Southern Bangladesh goes underwater and remains water-logged for about 7 to 8 months severely restricting the capacity of local farming communities to earn a living. Local resilience and innovative zeal to adapt to changing climatic conditions led some farming communities to revive an age-old technique of building ‘floating farms’. The ensuing discussion is based on the following sources found at BBC News, Al Jazeera News, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge and Climate Action Network South Asia.
Floating farms – or gardens – which are usually 8 to 10 metres long and a few metres wide are constructed using water hyacinth. This is an abundantly available invasive species but can serve as a robust base for the floating gardens which are in turn covered with soil and cow dung. A variety of cash crops can be planted on them. They serve the needs of local communities while the surplus generated becomes a new form of income-generating activity. This farming technique is productive because the cropping and harvesting cycle is significantly shorter than crops grown on dryland. At the same time, it promotes agricultural diversification by encouraging the cultivation of diverse crops throughout the year. Moreover, the products are organic and that in turn enhances their appeal to local traders who can sell them at a premium price.
The floating farms must be built every year, but the debris that is left behind are used as fertilizer during the dry season. Today, about 50,000 farmers are involved in the floating farm sector.
What role have different actors played in the revival and expansion of floating farms which are now recognised as one of 21 examples across the world of ‘globally important heritage agriculture’ (as designated by FAO)? Clearly, the innovative capacity of local farming communities was essential, but in the mid-2000s they benefited from the activism and support of local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In 2005, and again in 2009, the Bangladesh government recognised the importance of floating farms as part of its climate change adaptation strategy. In 2013, the government approved a USD 1.6 million project under the Bangladesh Government Climate Change Trust (BCCTF)to promote floating farms for climate change adaptation and has targeted close to 50 localities across the country. This suggests that scaling up of the floating farm sector is contingent on appropriate support from the government.
Iyanatul Islam is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and former Branch Chief, ILO, Geneva.