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Battling the weather in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the monsoon rains flood around one third of the country annually and the people of Bangladesh have been used to dealing with the weather. But last year, a devastating cyclone hit the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh, killing at least 300 people and destroying nearly 90,000 homes. 4,000 kilometres of roads and embankments were also damaged, effectively destroying the livelihoods of thousands.

Around 45% of Bangladeshi’s work in agriculture and rice is the staple crop. With the embankments breached, seawater flooded the homes and fields of the Khulna and Satkhira districts. 16 months on and nearly 50,000 people in the region are still living in temporary shelters made of plastic sheets and bamboo, built along elevated roads or on the damaged embankments. Many families have little but rainwater to supply them with fresh drinking water. And with the fields still under salt water, they are unable to restart their farming or shrimp fishing activities. With no income, many are eating only once or twice a day, surviving on relief aid and fish from nearby rivers. Without reparation of the embankments, there is little prospect for these people to rebuild their lives and some have turned to begging. With no money to buy anything but the most basic food, there has been no celebration of Eid this year.

The recent devastating series of floods and cyclones has put a huge strain on Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. The number of people living on less than the daily recommended amount of food was put at 65 million in 2008 and this number is steadily rising, particularly since the population of 160 million continues to grow at 1.4% annually.

So how will Bangladesh feed its growing population, especially when the changing climate makes the rainy seasons less reliable? One group of farmers in the northwestern Naogaon district has been experimenting with a different grain of rice. The ‘pariza’ is an indigenous rice variety which requires less water and can be harvested in May to August between the dry season ‘boro’ rice and monsoon ‘aman’ rice. Other varieties developed by the Bangladesh and Philippines Rice Research Institutes are also being trialled, especially ones which are tolerant of salt-water.

In another part of Bangladesh, near the foothills of the Himalayas, the charity Practical Action, has been working to build floating gardens, to help communities survive floods. The gardens are built using water hyacinth which is constructed into a floating raft. The raft is then covered with soil and cow dung and can be planted with vegetables such as gourd, okra, red onion and sweet pumpkin. A new raft must be built each year, but this can be done during the dry season. And since the gardens can be moved, they can be transported from place to place by those who have temporarily or permanently lost their homes.

It is to be hoped that the availability of new crop varieties and innovations such as the floating gardens, will go some way to helping the people of Bangladesh cope with increasingly erratic environment and give them the ability to feed their families whatever the weather throws at them.

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