DHAKA: In the lowlands of Bangladesh, where the changing climate brings floodwaters that remain for months, farmers are reviving an ancient form of hydroponics to stay afloat.
As the annual flood season is now twice longer than in the past, vast areas of Barisal region — the southern part of the country which lies in the Padma River Delta — are now submerged for more than half a year, making the traditional rice crop no longer a viable source of livelihood and employment.
Forced by climate change and encouraged by the government, thousands of farmers in the flood-prone region have turned to a centuries-old form of hydroponics, known as “floating gardens,” to reduce their financial exposure to extreme weather.
The “gardens” are artificial islands up to 35 meters long and 3.5 meters wide, made from weeds like water hyacinth. Farmers plant seedlings on the beds and float them into flooded parts of villages. The organic rafts last and bring yield for several months, rising and falling with the swelling floodwaters.
“The tradition of floating bed farming began around 250 years ago in the Barisal region,” Dolon Chandra Ray, agriculture officer of Agailjhara, Barisal district, told Arab News earlier this week.
But it was not widely used until several years ago, he said. The flood season used to peak between June and August, but with a changing climate, flash flooding now hits the region from May through November.
Efforts to encourage a return to floating bed cultivation in the region began in 2017 through a government-run pilot project, which provided farmers with training, seeds, pesticides and logistical support.
“Our target was to increase vegetable and spice production up to 10 percent in the region and we have already achieved this target,” Bibekananda Hira, monitoring evaluation officer of the project, said.
“About 25,000 farmers in 24 districts received our training,” he added. “The government is now planning to expand the program.”
Some 2,000 hectares are now used for floating bed cultivation, with farmers growing vegetables such as pumpkins, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, bitter gourd and beans, as well as various spices like chili, turmeric and coriander.
For many of those who do not own land, the method offers incomes they would never have dreamed of otherwise.
“Landowners don’t ask for any charges for this because we keep the land clean … and it helps the landowners to grow rice when the water recedes,” Obaidul Mollah, a farmer in Barisal, said.
Tending to six floating gardens earns him about $1,500 over the course of the flood season.
“It costs me about $70 from the preparation to production of crops on a floating bed, and with the produce I earn about $200 from each bed every four to six weeks, depending on the crops,” Mollah said.
The revival of the ancient cultivation method has made a great difference to the lives of farmers like Nurul Islam from nearby Pirojpur district.
“This floating bed farming has made our lives easier since we don’t have any other option to earn a living during the flood season,” he said. “Now, we can earn and maintain the family and also spend on the education of our children.”
As the impacts of climate change are unlikely to abate, the ancient form of hydroponics may be there to stay, offering a sustainable solution to traditional rice farming in the country’s flood zones.
“In the last two years, the country has faced flooding three times per year, which is one of the impacts of climate change causing huge environmental hazards for Bangladesh,” Dr. Atik Rahman, climate scientist and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, told Arab News.
“Floating gardens have become a sustainable way out for the farmers in the flood-prone areas,” he said. “It’s helping the nation also in maintaining food supplies for about 170 million people.”