“If the river didn’t take our land, I wouldn’t need to be here,” says Golam Mostafa Sarder, a teenage boy who is working at a brick factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
The brick factory requires laborers to work for 15 hours a day every day and Golam, who comes from a remote area in Gabura on the southwestern coast of Bangladesh, works there because he has no other choice. He’s hardly alone.
During the monsoon season much of this low-lying South Asian nations is submerged in floodwaters. Battling with hunger, many people like Golam who live in areas vulnerable to tropical storms and flooding leave their homes to find jobs elsewhere to earn some income to take care of themselves and their families. Most rural migrants end up in urban slums in Dhaka in search of menial jobs.
A large part of Bangladesh is located in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, the world’s largest river delta. Most of the land in the country is barely above sea level. As a result, during the monsoon, which brings heavy rains, more than one-fifth of the country may become flooded. Climate change is exacerbating the situation by causing the sea level to rise as well as triggering more frequent and severe storms.
People living in lowland areas in Bangladesh tend to be poor farmers with limited access to arable land. The long rainy season makes their life even worse with their plots being flooded, often for many months. Natural disasters leave many subsistence farmers with no crops and with no jobs.
“When you’re poor and hungry, losing your home or crops to floods can mean the beginning of the end,” says Anisul Islam, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Studies.
NGOs and Bangladesh’s government are helping many lowland inhabitants to adapt to prolonged floods. One solution to rising floodwater lies in floating gardens, which have a long tradition in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the flood-prone region.
Floating gardens, which are also popular in neighboring countries such as Myanmar, enable farmers to cultivate crops on platforms or rafts made from commonly found water hyacinths and aquatic weeds that stay afloat in lakes and rivers.
During the monsoon, when water overwhelms their land, farmers start to collect water hyacinths and compact them into solid platforms. These floating beds are then anchored by bamboo poles to prevent them from drifting away with the currents.
Soil, mixed with manure or compost, is placed on top to cover the surface of the rafts, turning them into gardens ready for new seeds. This traditional form of organic farming does not require artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The platforms are not only utilized during the monsoon, either. In winter, when flood waters subside, the residues of floating platforms can be reused as garden beds for winter crops.
In many areas in Bangladesh, this age-old practice of cultivation can turn environmental crises into opportunities for residents in lowland communities. As more and more consumers elsewhere prefer organic or chemical-free produce, vegetables cultivated with this method can become popular on the foreign market. The rise in demand for organic produce can in turn boost benefits for farmers who tend to floating gardens.
“Though it’s very tough to build floating beds on 20-feet deep water, we’ve got success as the demand for vegetables cultivated in this method is very high in the market,” says Faruk Ahmed, a farmer who owns a floating garden in the Rustampur area of the country.
Various vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, green chilies, red spinach, long beans and pumpkins can be cultivated on water hyacinths rafts. By engaging in such time-honored ways of cultivation by help of floating water hyacinths gardens, farmers in vulnerable areas can become more self-reliant even in the face of climate change.