Criss-crossed by around 250 rivers, Bangladesh has large swathes of land prone to regular flooding. However, floods are happening with increased frequency and the water submerges farmland for longer. This is causing widespread failure of rice harvests and the death of livestock.
Some assistance projects are focusing on the introduction of new rice varieties, which cope with being submerged. Other schemes are encouraging farmers to diversify. AlertNet highlights one such programme in the Comilla district (around 60km from Dhaka). Here, land can be under water for up to six months. Now, rice growers are using their flooded fields to breed prawns for half the year. Since the prawns sell for a good price (around 19 dollars per kilo), families are earning over 1,000 dollars annually from this new activity. One farmer’s wife told AlertNet “it’s changed our lives....we have been able to send our children to school”.
Though the scheme is successfully raising income in poor communities, some observers are concerned the initiative is funded by microfinance loans. Critics point to the high interest rates on such loans. In the case of the prawn-farming scheme, backed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the rate of interest on a 650 dollar loan is set at 26 percent. This is around three times higher than loans from banks. However, as the villagers point out, traditional banks would not loan them the money needed for the boats, nets and fishing tools. And with good prices for their prawns, as well as for other fish such as tilapia and carp, families can at least expect to repay their loans within a short period of time.
New microfinance schemes are also becoming more widely available. Charities such as CARE International and Oxfam, as well as other non-governmental organisations, are extending schemes based on savings rather than debt. Known as village savings and loans associations, these are managed by members of the community and provide returns of 20-30% on savings. Borrowers typically pay only 5-10% per month on any loans, which usually have to be repaid within three months. The funds also act as micro-insurance, paying out if any member of the group (usually between 15-30 people) suffers a sudden misfortune.
But for now, more than 250 families in the Comilla district are not complaining about the loans which have allowed them to farm freshwater prawns for half the year. Having been provided with training and learning basic business skills, these Bangladeshi families are getting on with earning a living, despite the weather, and are grateful they can fend for themselves and raise their families out of poverty.