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Transforming Lands, Transforming Lives: hope for millions living on the edge of mighty rivers in Bangladesh

The rivers of Bangladesh are both vital and a constant threat to the many people who live on their banks

Author: Nazmul Islam Chowdhury, Practical Action Bangladesh. Source: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

In Bangladesh, the mighty rivers of the Ganges and Brahmaputra are both vital and threatening to nearby inhabitants. Monsoon rains cause the rivers to swell, often flooding villages and fields. However, during the other months, drought leaves crops, livestock and communities praying for water. Land is scarce, population density is high and poverty and food security are major concerns, especially in the face of this seasonal feast and famine.

It is in this environment that the Transforming Lands, Transforming Lives project emerged. The project goal is to reduce the vulnerability of men, women and children to the physical, social, economic and political effects of river erosion, flooding and other natural disasters in the five districts in northwest Bangladesh. The project, initiated by Practical Action with the assistance of four local partners (GUK, AKOTA, SSUS) and Polly Bodhu as an implementing partner, aims to assist those whose villages and farms have been lost through river erosion and are forced to live illegally on flood protection embankments. These displaced communities are offered improved housing, basic services (health, water, education), education about their civil rights, and trainings and support for managing productive livelihoods, including sandbar cropping.

Sandbar cropping is an innovative and successful approach to ensuring these harsh landscapes provide for their inhabitants. After each rainy season, large sand islands appear in the main rivers of Bangladesh. These ‘lands’ are common property resources that generally tend to disappear during the following wet season and, until now, have not been used for any productive purpose. However, this project has successfully used this ever-changing landscape to demonstrate that the growing of pumpkins in small compost pits dug into the sand is both possible and profitable. Large-scale irrigation is not necessary as the land is close to the river channel.

From 2005 to 2009, a total of 3,273 farmers (many of them women) produced 33,000 MT of pumpkin worth £2.2m  at farm gate price; and the technology is now spreading fast to new areas. Currently over 15,000 individuals are benefitting from the technology. The sandbar cropping sub-project measures its achievements by the levels of adoption of the technology by trainees and the spread of the technology to new areas.

islands

Temporary sand islands are infertile and nearly impossible to grow on. However, when pits are dug and filled with compost and seeds, they can prove to be valuable croplands in Bangladesh, where populations are high and land and food are scarce

The pumpkins produced on the sandbars can be stored in people’s houses over a year (for up to 18 months) and, therefore, greatly assist poor households both in terms of income generation & food security. Sandbar cropping has transformed a barren landscape, and these ‘mini deserts’ have now been turned into productive, green fields.

This innovative cropping technology opens up otherwise unproductive lands and is ideally suited to adoption by displaced and landless households. The technology appears to be low risk, yet shows an impressive financial return. Sandbar cropping is so simple and yet, to our knowledge, no one had thought of this application until the project was first experimented with in 2005. And, as Rick Gregory, a past project evaluator and long time expert in Bangladesh notes, “The technology would seem to have a much wider application in other dry areas and could even become an important coping strategy in some areas adversely affected by climate change”.


Nazmul Chowdhury, an agriculturist, has worked for Practical Action Bangladesh since 2001 and has been closely affiliated with technology innovation and promotion from its inception in 2005.

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