Floating gardens, raised homes, and reflections from the field.
WRI’s Aarjan Dixit recently attended the 5th Annual Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change Conference in Bangladesh. As part of the conference, participants visited local communities to see how adaptation projects were working.
A road led from the river toward the entrance of Goalbari, a mainly Hindu village surrounded by lush green agriculture fields in the Gopalgunj district of central Bangladesh. To get to Goalbari, we had taken a short boat ride across the canal of the Madhumati River, dug by the British about 100 years ago to transport jute (a vegetable fiber used for fabric) from the area to the port city of Kolkata. A gang of children, on holiday celebrating the country’s 40th Independence Day, watched as we made our way to the village. The mostly low-lying landscape was dotted with raised areas of inhabited land connected by roads built on embankments.
When the annual monsoon rains come here, the river floods and submerges most the area. Floods have always been a source of renewal in this part of the world, depositing a layer of rich alluvial soil and helping increase agricultural productivity. However, several past development activities (especially the construction of embankments), and now climate change, have created new and significant challenges to the people living in the area.
Villagers told us that the frequency and intensity of the floods have increased over the years. And perhaps more importantly, when the floods come, the flood water stays for months. With natural drainage channels blocked by earth embankments, this effectively means that the area is water-logged for almost half of the year, disrupting agriculture, mobility, and making basic services like drinking water and healthcare very hard to access.
Yet, the first people who welcomed us into the village were a group of women that had formed a successful cooperative to address the challenges the floods have brought. Their model is dispersing loans to other women in the village from their collective savings and charging interest on them. Loans in turn are used to buy livestock and other assets that could improve income over the longer term.
Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), two organizations active in the area, use this women’s collective to begin helping villages respond to the challenges associated with floods. With financial support from Norwegian Church Aid, these two organizations had identified 17 of the village’s poorest households and decided to raise the foundational platform, or plinth, of their houses by four feet to protect them from the flood waters. A few other households, after seeing the benefits of such raised plinths, in turn made their own investments to raise the plinths of their houses.
With their agricultural lands inundated for months, many households in the area also use a floating bed of compacted water hyacinths to grow vegetables, locally known as baira. These floating gardens fall and rise with the water level and can allow households to grow vegetables for consumption when the flood waters are high. Researchers from BCAS have devised ways to improve the design of such bairas to make them lighter and stay afloat for longer periods of time.
The significant challenges that the people of the area face became clearer when we visited Dasarathbala, a villager in Goalbari. His family’s house plinth had been raised and they had a floating garden. However, he and his family are agriculture laborers, without money to rent land. Recently the family had to sell their boat – indispensible when the area is flooded – in order to raise money. The men with Dasarathbala told us that the children could not go to school during the floods and that the lack of electricity made their lives difficult. The women told us of other worries: they lacked private space for personal sanitation when land was flooded; providing food for the children and caring for pregnant women became really difficult; the floods made travel from home nearly impossible; and of course, when the area was under water, there was no agriculture and their livelihood suffered.
Raising the plinths of the houses and developing floating beds were helping the poorest households of the community to cope with some of the challenges associated with higher and more intense levels of flooding and water logging. But these kinds of technical interventions can only go so far in helping poor families address the serious climatic challenges they face.
It was clear from our visit to Goalbari that diversifying the ways people could make a living when the area is under water was fundamental to their long-term adaptation. Developing ways for students to go to school and to keep schools open even during floods seemed equally important. Improving access to services for these communities, like drinking water, health facilities and other types of income generating activities were critical to improving people’s resilience to these weather related challenges.
Many of the activities people say would help them adapt to weather challenges are often the same development-focused activities that would help increase resilience to a host of other economic and natural shocks. The lack of land for Dasarathbala’s family, for example, makes them poor and vulnerable with or without the worsening climate change impacts.
Secure tenure rights, and access and ownership over resources are often fundamental to improving resilience to weather extremes and vulnerabilities over the long term. As the global community struggles to tease out the nuances that separate adaptation from general development strategy, practitioners will need to be careful that the more immediate short-term needs of the poor and vulnerable are met while attempting to plan for the longer-term impacts of climate change.
Climate change and other weather related events do, however, present unique challenges that will require us to think in innovative ways. Often project and community-driven approaches like the interventions I mention above are critical to understanding local needs, keeping communities central to decision and planning processes. Yet, they alone are not able to address the greater landscape of environmental services that might be needed to contend with such challenges. For example, drainage issues, often one of the major causes of water logging in delta regions like Gopalgunj, can’t be solved by a narrow focus on communities and may need us to look at regional scales and subnational, national or sometimes even international processes. Similarly, local community-based approaches will also need to address other system-wide activities like access to markets, seasonal migration as an income diversifying source, and trade that could be important resilience-building activities for people like Dasarathbala and his family in Goalbari.