Rising sea levels and severe flooding are already putting tens of millions of lives at risk in Bangladesh, but they pose another problem that threatens the entire nation: flooded land and high salinity of waterways and of the soil kill crops.
Bangladesh ranks seventh among the countries most affected by extreme weather events over the past two decades, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.
Farmers are desperately trying to adapt to these increasingly destructive and unpredictable conditions caused by global warming – from the use of floating seedbeds to the development of salt-resistant rice.
“Even 25 years ago, we could grow crops all year round (…) but the water started staying here for seven months. We didn’t know how to survive,” Altaf Mahmud told the AFP.
“Most of the farmers here are poor and land is scarce. But if we can’t grow anything for the seven months, we will starve,” added neighbor Mohammad Mostofa.
So they and other local farmers in Mugarjhor, an area 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of Dhaka, revived a century-old technique of using seed beds over water.
They stack layers of water hyacinth and bamboo tied together by their roots to create a raft, between two and four feet high, on which to plant seeds – often using wood chips and coir as fertilizer.
This forms a light, floating vegetable patch – bitter gourds, spinach, and okra can all be grown this way – capable of rising and falling with water levels.
The floating farms have become community initiatives, in some villages the women spend months preparing the beds before the boatmen take them through the waterlogged fields, the old beds are composted.
– “I can’t do it alone” –
Increasingly frequent cyclones, rising sea levels, flooding, erosion, drought and erratic rains have already displaced millions of people, either in the slums or abroad.
Those who remain have no choice but to find new ways of working.
Some farmers have stopped growing crops, preferring to grow shrimp in brackish water or fatten crabs – catching wild crabs and feeding them until they sell – as well as raising ducks, which sell for high prices in restaurants in Dhaka.
The Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has created new varieties resistant to the salt of the staple crop.
“Normal rice does not grow in salt water. Salinity saps the energy of the rice stalks,” explained scientist Alamgir Hossain.
BRRI has now created a strain that can grow in water with three times more salt levels than normal rice can withstand, he said.
This has offered “new hope” to farmers in coastal regions, where seawater is increasingly encroaching on land, he added.
But Saiful Islam, a climate expert at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said such efforts are a drop in the ocean.
“We have to spend billions to raise and strengthen the dikes along our great coastline. We need to create mangrove forests along the coastal belt to serve as natural barriers to cyclones, subsidence and sea level rise.
“We need to build new roads, conserve rainwater and create alternative livelihoods for millions of people. It is not enough to invent cultures. Bangladesh alone cannot do this,” he said. Islam told AFP.
He added that Western countries were “responsible for emitting most of the greenhouse gases” and should therefore help.
Islam said Bangladesh had received “almost none” of the $ 100 billion offered by developed countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
– ‘YouTube farming methods’ –
In some areas, ordinary people are leading the charge for change.
“Lungi” Jakir has become a local legend for his fight against climate change.
A former construction worker, he and his friends built an embankment to prevent seawater from entering a 6.5-kilometer (four-mile) freshwater canal, saving the 43,000 people it serves at Pakhimara, in southern Bangladesh.
It requires continual repair, but ensured that there is enough fresh water all year round to irrigate traditional crops and even try new ones.
“Salinity is all around us,” he told AFP, “We have received very little help from the government … so we have to find our own means to survive.”
“I could migrate to the cities. But I know how difficult it is to live in a slum.”
Jakir said he “learned new farming techniques from YouTube,” explaining how they now also use plastic sheeting and raised beds to protect the topsoil.
The initiative was so successful that the area moved from growing pumpkins and lentils to supplying fruit and vegetables to other neighborhoods and even workers at the nearby coal-fired power plant.
Authorities admit that farmers have shown them new possibilities in the face of climate challenges.
“We thought the hyacinth is a weed and should be thrown out of the ponds, but it opened up a huge opportunity for agriculture,” Mohammad Shahidullah, former government agriculture chief for Mugarjhor, said of the gardens. floating vegetable gardens.
“The public research institutes didn’t know. We learned from the farmers here,” he added.
Officials want to “popularize” the technique in other flooded areas, Shahidullah said.
Farmer Mahmud said some of his family are now being recruited by the government to train others in this form of soilless farming.
Market gardener Mostofa hoped to be able to cope with climate change.
He told AFP: “Now, thanks to the floating farm, we can grow our food and also sell the surplus.”
sa / stu / lto