Mohammad Mostafa, a farmer in the low-lying deltas of southwestern Bangladesh, has revived his forefathers’ farming practice of growing crops on floating rafts as rising seas and storm flooding threaten more and more farmland.
With prolonged waterlogging posing an increasing threat to families growing their own food, more have turned to using the rafts as secure platforms to start seedlings and grow vegetables and fruit including cucumbers, radishes, pumpkins, papayas, and tomatoes.
The rafts, woven from the stems of invasive hyacinths, are providing a lifeline for families during the increasingly extreme monsoon seasons when dry land can be especially scarce.
“When I was a boy, this area was dry land, we used to play in the fields and grow rice,” said 42-year-old Mostafa, as he planted balls of seedlings on floating beds.
“But with the water levels rising in both the sea and river, water started to accumulate here, so we can’t cultivate crops anymore. I have been growing seedlings on floating beds for the past five years, growing seedlings of different vegetables,” said Mostafa, the sole breadwinner in his six-member family.
The 200-year-old technique was initially adopted by farmers in the region during the flooding season, which used to last about five months each year. But nowadays the area remains underwater for eight to ten months and more land is being flooded.
Floating farms now cover a total 120 hectares (296.53 acres), up from 80 hectares (197.68 acres) five years ago, farm officials in Nazirpur said.
The approach, now practised by some 6,000 subsistence farmers, having risen from around 4,500 five years ago, across the swampy southwest, may prove crucial as climate change sends sea levels higher and makes the monsoons more erratic. More than a quarter of Bangladesh’s population of 165 million live in the coastal zone.
Low-lying Bangladesh is considered among the most climate-vulnerable countries, with the impact of rising waters compounded by storms, floods, and erosion.
The climate impact is being compounded by natural factors, such as tectonic shifts that are causing the land beneath to sink, and upstream dams holding back silt that would replenish the eroding delta.
Between 2000 and 2019, Bangladesh was ranked seventh in a list of countries hit hardest by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 produced by non-profit Germanwatch.
Bangladesh is also frequently hit by cyclones that barrel up the Bay of Bengal, while global warming makes rainfall patterns increasingly erratic.
Rising sea levels and coastal erosion could cause Bangladesh to lose 17 percent of its land surface and 30 percent of food production by 2050, according to a 2019 International Monetary Fund report.
Farmer Mostafa says thanks to his seedling sales, he is now able to feed his family without asking for help but the profit margins have been shrinking as costs rise. This year, he spent about 4,500 taka ($44) for a boatload of water hyacinths weighing about 1.2 tonnes to weave into new rafts for the year. Last year, the cost was just 1,000 taka.
The rafts, which take two months to make, are typically around 6 metres long and 1 metre wide, but can be several times that length, farmers said. They need to be replaced with new ones after each harvest.
The number of floating farms has increased so much local authorities say they are now offering support for farmers so they can grow quality seedlings to ensure good yields.
Production: Rafiq Rahman, Phyllis Xu