BY MINH VU
Situated on the Ganges Delta and the Bay of Bengal, the nation of Bangladesh is constantly devastated by flooding from the 230 rivers surrounding it. Pockets of farming villages often have their growing crops and farmland destroyed by the torrential water, forcing families to leave in search of new villages and livelihoods. In the past year, over 100,000 women, men, and children were displaced because floods had destroyed their food sources.1
But this does not have to continue. Although the natural course of Mother Nature cannot be altered, some of its destructive aspects can be transformed into processes that benefit people’s lives. Practical Action, an international development charity, aspires to turn Bangladesh’s floods from agricultural banes into farming aids using a technology called sandbar cropping. This innovative, low cost agricultural technique has already helped nourish and restore several farming villages.
In the winter, Bangladesh’s rivers undergo major recessions, leaving thousands of hectares of sandbar. These large, barren lands are covered with sand on top of silt. Practical Action’s sandbar cropping innovation takes advantage of these lands, producing vast harvests of crops from what would otherwise be ‘mini-deserts.’ This is how sandbar cropping works: first, a pit one meter deep and one meter in diameter is dug into the sandbar. Then a jute sack made of porous fibers is filled with a compost (cow dung, soil, and water) and placed into the hole. Next, 5 to 6 seeds are sown into the sack and grown for about three months, and voilà! The harvest commences.
This inexpensive and accessible process allows farmers to plant seeds in previously fallow sandbars, because it allows their crops to access fertile silty layers, while keeping the crops inside easy-to-monitor and easy-to-access capsules.2 Because of Bangladesh’s volatile climatic conditions, pumpkins are the primary crop of Practical Action’s project, as they maximize profit over time.2 Other low-maintenance crops such as lettuce and squash are also viable options that the organization is working to expand other countries.4 Their innovation is unique in that it requires no special mechanical input, but rather is a simple and low cost technique that can create tangible improvements for affected village communities. Over the past year, through a series of initiatives by the Rangpur Division and the United Kingdom Government, Practical Action has outreached the sandbar cropping technology to over 32,000 households whose farms and crops had been lost through river erosion, making arable over 9,000 km2 of sandbar land, and leading to the production of one million kilograms of pumpkins.1,3
To see the impact of this technology in a real family, consider the story of Mohammed Saiful Islam. From when he was age 3 to age 13, he and his family were displaced, until they reached a flood protection embankment in Haripur in 1992. There, Mohammed found a job as a laborer, but his low wages could not sustain the family’s nutritional needs.1 Practical Action stepped in. Along with 3,200 other families, Mohammed received training, seeds, and compost from the organization’s ally AKOTA to start new homes and farms. In his first year of sandbar cropping, Mohammed recounts being “astonished” at the pumpkin harvest he made: he prepared 433 plants from which 2809 pumpkins were harvested.6 In an interview with with Nirmal Bepary, a Bangladesh water ambassador and Practical Action representative, Mohammed says: “The opportunity and the technology is a blessing for us, it has opened our eyes to see a better life and a new hope to live.”1
Another situation where Practical Action had a great effect was with the 2016 flood in the district of Kurigram that left 2,500 individuals in critical need of food, water, and first-aid.5 The event summoned Practical Action’s emergency response team, who sprang into action to assist families endangered by the flood. But sandbar cropping alone was not the only key player in mitigating the disaster–––intercommunal cooperation was critical. Neighboring communities showed an awe-inspiring commitment to helping the flood victims. Some families traveled nearly forty kilometers to come to afflicted areas, sympathizing with those affected because they too had suffered similar damages from unpredictable flooding. Within the hour of the emergency response call, hundreds of households happily volunteered to assist neighboring communities, donating their time, services, and pumpkins to help crop the sandbar lands with five metric tons of pumpkins, thus resettling the victims with more secure and sustainable food sources.5
Saiful’s story of recovery and the rebuilding of Kurigram are illustrations of a broad reality that underprivileged communities would rather adapt and stay in their environments than move away from their homes. Practical Action (in addition to feeding stomachs) is helping to drive socio-economic change for these families. By working with the UK Government in the join 1.1 million dollar Pumpkins Against Poverty project, the organization has helped spread knowledge in the communities about formal market structures and price margins.7 Using these economic guidelines as mercantile tools, Bangladeshi families have begun producing crops not only for food, but for profit: around 1,000 pumpkins are sold per family (80% of their harvest) with an average of 5 to 1 return on investment.5, 7
Sandbar cropping has so far helped tens of thousands of farmers to transform thousands of acres of mini-deserts into plentiful fields of crops.5 Right now, sandbar cropping generates 9,000 meals daily in Bangladesh communities alone, and in total, it has contributed to the growth of 98,000 tons (~$10 million worth) of pumpkins.2, 7 Practical Action is currently doing field tests in India and Nepal, whose year-round growing climates will help diversify crops and create a sustainable market. The goal is to expand the ‘justice technology’ beyond Bangladesh, to other countries around the world.
Minh Vu is a freshman in Silliman College majoring in English and Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chowdhury, N., & Bepary, N. C. (2014, September 26). Emerging waterscapes. When the land is not enough. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/farmers-landscapes/waterscapes
- Irfanullah, H. M. (2016, February 2). Sandbar cropping to eradicate extreme poverty in Bangladesh | Practical Action. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://practicalaction.org/blog/news/campaigns/the-power-of-a-nature-based-innovation-to-eradicate-extreme-poverty-a-case-of-sandbar-cropping-from-bangladesh/
- @securingwaterforfood. (2016, September). Sandbar Cropping – Practical Action – Securing Water for Food. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://securingwaterforfood.org/innovators/practical-action-sandbar-cropping
- Krishnamurhty, R. (2014, April 25). Sandbar Cropping in Bangladesh. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://permaculturenews.org/2014/04/25/sandbar-cropping-bangladesh/
- Securing Water for Food: Interview with Nazmul Chowdhury, Water Ambassador for Bangladesh and Practical Action Representative [Skype interview]. (2016, August 20).
- Smashing Pumpkins! Thousands of landless farmers to turn sand flats into fields. (2016, May 13). Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.mynewsdesk.com/uk/practical-action/pressreleases/smashing-pumpkins-thousands-of-landless-farmers-to-turn-sand-flats-into-fields-1403042
- AG Team. (2016, August 15). Question and Answer Series: Sandbar Cropping in Bangladesh. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from https://agrilinks.org/blog/question-and-answer-series-sandbar-cropping-bangladesh