Adaptation in Bangladesh: notes from the field

A field trip to Gaibandha District in Bangladesh uncovers a plethora of strategies used by local communities to cope with flooding and river bank erosion.

Keshab Thapa's picture
Insight by 
Keshab Thapa
29 March 2011

Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world. Last year, the British global risks analysis company Maplecroft said that the country was most at risk because of its extreme levels of poverty, dependence on agriculture and its government’s low capacity to adapt to predicted changes, which include a high risk of drought and flooding.

But if the government suffers from poor capacity, the country’s local communities are among the world’s most active in adapting to climate change. And last weekend, as part of a group of delegates to the Fifth Annual Community-Based Adaptation Conference, I travelled to Gaibandha District to see for myself how climate change is impacting local Bangladeshi communities and how these people are responding to the threat.

Floods: threat or opportunity?

After a long day travelling, we arrived in Gaibandha, where we were welcomed by representatives from two organisations — Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK) and Practical Action Bangladesh — that are helping local people manage disaster risk.

They took us to Belka village, where 2500 households live in a government managed embankment that is increasingly affected by floods and erosion. More frequent floods have turned many of the local people from landlords to landless. And the erosion has impacted livelihoods by washing away productive arable lands.

There is a clear and present need to adapt to these risks and impacts to survive. And the community has admirably risen to the challenge. With technical support from Practical Action Bangladesh, 20 of the displaced farmers of Belka have begun floating garden and cage fish culture to turn the flooding from a threat to an opportunity.

Each farmer manages up to two floating garden ‘beds’ — built out of the water hyacinth that abounds during flooding — where they grow leafy vegetables such as Cancong and red amaranthus. This type of farming has helped farmers to both meet their family’s nutritional needs and earn some money by selling surplus vegetables and compost to the nearby market.

Other farmers are using cage fish culture to produce fish. The system can produce 25–40 kilogrammes of fish per cage per culture cycle — and a three month flood can support up to three culture cycles.

It is not just flooded lands that are being put to productive use. 80 farmers — including 60 women — have started making more out of the sandbars by growing pumpkin and squash. This cultivation has been possible because the floods have deposited rich alluvial soil on the previously unproductive sandbar.

The farmers are investing huge effort into making this land fertile and productive and their hard work is paying off. This ‘community-based adaptation’ has helped diversify livelihoods and provide money to buy livestock such as goats and cattle. But its future remains uncertain because the farmers have no formal rights to use the land — although the community remains hopeful that, if they lobby, the government will soon hand over the rights.

Shelter from the storm

After Belka, we visited another village threatened by flooding and riverbank erosion, Kundar Para. Here, we heard about severe floods and droughts over the past 20 years that have caused outbreaks of disease, damaged houses, crops and water supplies, and cut people off from schools, health centres and markets. These impacts eventually forced the community to abandon their land and move to islands, or ‘chars’ for shelter.

More than a decade ago, the village head approached GUK for support. In 1995, GUK established a flood shelter in the village. The shelter is run by a committee of 23 people, which is responsible for establishing disaster preparedness plans, including monitoring the river, identifying vulnerable households and participatory planning.

The community has grown from strength to strength: it can better access markets, safer drinking water and basic services and has access to solar energy and portable stoves (with firewood and essential medicines).

Finding out about how these communities in Gaibandha District have been coping with floods and erosion has been a unique and great learning opportunity for me. The community-based adaptation options and strategies I have seen are not only good for sharing during the conference and through this blog, but are also replicable in areas of my country, Nepal, that are similarly vulnerable.

This guest post was written by Keshab Thapa, programme officer at Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), Nepal.