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Emerging waterscapes. When the land is not enough

Written by Nazmul Chowdhury , Nirmal Chandra Bepary last modified Sep 26, 2014 09:27 AM

With more than a thousand people per square kilometre, Bangladesh has by far the greatest population density of any similar sized country in the world. Land is scarce, and the flooding seems to get worse year after year. But, the emerging use of seasonal islands now offers some farming families a new way to grow crops on the waterways that otherwise threaten their very existence.

Farming Matters | 30.3 | September 2014

Farmers, Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of poorest countries on Earth, and farming families have to make use of whatever space is available. Criss-crossed by 230 of the world’s most unstable rivers, the situation is worsened by flooding that affects millions of people each year, with at least 100,000 women, men and children forced to move as villages and livelihoods are literally washed away. And in recent years, flooding has intensified and lasts longer.

So if there is no more land, why not go to the water? Mohammed Saiful Islam and Tara Begem did. They pioneered an innovative, low cost and local adapted approach – sandbar cropping. Early successes suggest that it has great potential for use in other parts of the world, and this is good news that needs sharing.

Sandbar cropping

What are sandbar

Sandbars are large, temporary and barren lands made of sand and silt, deposited as rivers flood and subside or change their course. These islands emerge as flooded rivers recede, are not stable enough to support permanent vegetation and remain only until the next year’s rains wash them away. As such, they are common property resources but were never before utilised.

Similar temporary ‘land’ may also occur along river banks or as charland (where such deposits are found on fertile farmland). In northern Bangladesh, sandbars appear at the beginning of the dry season in November, and disappear as the rainy season starts in April.

This technique was developed through a series of initiatives in Rangpur Division, when Practical Action Bangladesh began a trial with 177 farmers in 2005, starting with the objective of ‘something is better than nothing’. This was part of their ‘Disappearing lands’ project which went on to win the Asia-Pacific gold award in 2007. This was then expanded in a second project and a joint initiative between the governments of Bangladesh and the UK. This was designed to benefit 32,000 households whose villages and farms had been lost through river erosion in five districts in northwestern Bangladesh covering 9000 km2 and who had been forced to live on flood protection embankments.

At the age of three, Mohammed Saiful Islam and his family were forced to move when flooding destroyed the family home. They had to move another four times in the next ten years, before settling on a flood protection embankment in Haripur in 1992 where he still lives, now with his wife and two children. After separating from his parents at marriage, he became a day labourer enduring low wages, forced migration to other districts and having to sell his labour in advance in the lean season, meaning that the family suffered from a lack of food most of the time. In 2006, he became one of the first farmers to receive training, seeds and compost by AKOTA, one of five local NGOs that were promoting sandbar techniques with 3200 families. He began by preparing 50 planting pits, but was very uncertain as to what to expect.

Pumpkins from sand pits

Farmers dig sand pits for growing pumpkins. Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh
Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh
Sandbar cropping provides an huge harvest of pumpkins. Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh
Sandbar cropping provides an huge harvest of pumpkins. Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh
Pumpkins can be sold or stored for up to a year. Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh
Pumpkins can be sold or stored for up to a year. Photo: Practical Action Bangladesh

The season for pumpkin cultivation starts at the end of the rains, at the same time as the rivers recede and sandbars appear. Saiful was shown a suitable site and working with technicians, they developed a system of preparing planting pits. These were one metre deep and one metre wide, and around two meters from each other.

Pits were then lined with a mixture of cow dung, soil and water. Jute sacks are also used to line the pits in extreme locations. Allowed to settle for a few days, seeds were then sown. Being close to the river, the pits are easily watered by hand in the early months.

At the end of the dry season when plants need extra water as the fruit expands, boreholes were dug and pumps and temporary plastic-lined reservoirs helped by providing water for irrigation.

Saiful was astonished with the amazing harvest of pumpkins and the profit he made that first year from only 50 pits. The following season, he and his family prepared 433 pits from which they earned a small fortune in their eyes. He harvested 2809 pumpkins with an average weight of 7 kg and many more sweet gourds. He has since become a model in the community thanks to his success with sandbar cropping, and has invested the profits in aquaculture and beef fattening. Saiful said “The opportunity and the technology is a blessing for us, it has opened our eyes to see a better life and a new hope to live.” He and his brother now plan to expand production in the following years to more remote sandbars and to try different crops.

The experience of Practical Action, national partners and the farmers, suggests that as few as one hundred pits can bring tangible and significant improvements for an extremely poor farming family. It is a simple and low cost technique that requires no special inputs.

The pumpkins produced on the sandbars can be stored in people’s home for more than a year and therefore greatly assist poor households with income generation, food security and lean season management. In the winter dry season, sandbar cropping also transforms the barren landscape of these ‘mini desert islands’ into productive green fields which also support a wide range of insect, birds and other small animal species due to the habitat created.

With additional support, the technique and the benefits have been greatly outscaled in northern Bangladesh. More than 160,000 family members are thought to be benefitting, and the idea is spreading. Sandbar cropping techniques have been taken up by Care Bangladesh, Concern Worldwide, Friendship International, interest shown by UNDP and field visits by the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture.

Growing pumpkins in pits using the sandbar cropping technique

Since 2005, more than 15,000 people and their families, mostly displaced or landless and mostly women, have adopted the sandbar cropping technique and produced more than 55,000 tonnes of pumpkins worth more than five million US dollars. These experiences clearly show how family farmers are able to innovate when their land and livelihood is put under pressure by ever more mouths to feed from the same land, and further threatened by more natural disasters in form of floods. The answer here is to make the best use of any land, however temporary.

Nazmul Chowdhury and Nirmal Bepary

Nazmul Chowdhury and Nirmal Bepary work for Practical Action Bangladesh.
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