very three or four months, farmlands in at least three districts in southwestern Bangladesh disappear. Or to be more precise, they are taken apart and made to enrich the soil elsewhere.
These farmlands, after all, are the famous floating gardens of Bangladesh. While they are helping thousands of families make a living, they are also temporary in nature and have to be built again and again. Yet with climate change bringing more floods and higher water levels in already perennially waterlogged areas, floating agriculture has been increasingly gaining importance and popularity in the country.
“This 200-year-old traditional farming method was developed by the local farmers as a means of survival,” says Arun Kumar Roy, deputy assistant agriculture officer of Pirojpur district in southwestern Bangladesh, where this unusual farming method is most popular, along with the south-central districts of Barishal and Gopalganj.
“Today this technique is being implemented on about 200 acres (81 hectares) of land in these two subdistricts, Nazirpur and Nesharabad of Pirojpur. The Department of Agricultural Extension provides training and support to modernize this traditional farming method.”
By support, Roy means providing “modernized seeds to the market.” Indeed, the government has been keen to see the farmers keep up with this method of farming, which is considered to be environment-friendly.
As many as 6,000 southwestern Bangladeshis are now into floating farming, locally known as dhap. Typically, they grow seedlings of papaya, gourd, pumpkin, eggplant, bitter gourd, snake gourd, tomato, and cucumber. Additionally, they cultivate leafy vegetables such as bottle gourd leaf, red amaranth, spinach, and green amaranth.
Although parts of Myanmar, Cambodia, and India also use this kind of farming, it was Bangladesh’s version of floating farming that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognized in 2015 as a “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.”
Still, the country’s floating farmers could do with more financial help from the government, as well as with expanded basic services, particularly on health.
The rafts or floating cultivation beds are made primarily with water hyacinth, which is mixed with water lettuce, algae, various aquatic plants, and duckweed. Measuring some six meters long and a meter wide, each costs BDT 7,000 to BDT 8,000 (approximately US$63 to US$73) to make.
The farmers usually have more than one cultivation bed, which they would have to replace at least twice a year. They also purchase the seeds, as well as pesticides (because the beds are prone to pests) and fertilizers. All these mean that the amount needed for capital can be hefty – especially since the farmers have little to begin with.
The usual procedure is for a moneylender to take BDT 10,000 (US$90.93) in advance and then lend the farmer BDT 100,000 (US$909.27) for 47 weeks. The farmer has to pay back BDT 2,500 (US$22.73) every week. Several of the farmers say that they are able to pay back the loans, including interest.
But most admit that come rainy season, they have a harder time coming up with the sums they owe and often have to play catch-up with the payments.
Never-ending skin infections
Being perennially cash-strapped may also be one reason why the farmers simply endure the ailments they acquire while working on their floating gardens. Another is the simple lack of nearby primary healthcare.
While Bangladesh has been winning accolades for continuously expanding its network of community health centers, many areas like Pirojpur have yet to be reached by this. In one village in the district, locals say that the nearest community hospital is about an hour away by bus.
Then again, many of the farmers express disinterest in getting any treatment for their ailments. Prolonged exposure to mud, water, dirt, water hyacinth, and algae often leads to various skin diseases. Many suffer from perpetual fungal infection on their hands and feet that cause them major discomfort.
Mohammad Yasir Sutar, for instance, says that the incessant itch on his hands has been keeping him up awake at night.
“Four-five years ago, my hand wasn’t as bad as it is now,” he says. “In the early days, it had decreased on its own over time. I didn’t feel the pain that much and could tolerate it.”
But that’s no longer true. Says the 38-year-old: “Day by day, my skin gets infected, itches… and the skin around my nails on the hands and feet become rotten. As a result, it hurts to eat with my hands. So, I have to apply Savlon (a topical ointment) to alleviate itching and take painkillers to manage the pain.”
The women who prepare the seedling balls for the floating farms also have similar complaints, aside from back pains from hours bent over water lettuce and duckweed that they twist together and then place seeds in the center. It is also usually the women who tend to the seeds as they germinate.
Najma Begum, 36, says the pain from her skin ailments get in the way of her doing household chores. Rahima Begum, 31, echoes this, but says that she is not about to stop making the seedling balls. She has been doing this for the last 13 years, she says, declaring that she can make as much as 1,000 balls in a day.
“I have to do this job throughout the year to make ends meet,” says Rahima. “I regularly suffer from skin problems like rashes, fungal infections, and allergies as a result of my work. When I come into contact with salt, pepper powders, detergent, or ashes, it feels like my skin is burning. Sometimes, I use alum to reduce the infection and pain. Additionally, I suffer from severe back pain. But if I don’t work, I won’t be able to afford my next meal.”
Unable to afford gloves or rest
“If they carry such skin diseases for a long time, their ability to work and life span may gradually decrease,” says Dr Nizam Uddin, resident medical officer of Pirojpur District Hospital. “Since these diseases are contagious, they can be passed from mother to child or from one family member to another.”
“We can call these skin issues occupational hazards,” continues the doctor. “Wearing gloves and boots during work, clean clothes, and conscious living can reduce the spread of these diseases.”
He also says that faster healing can be had for these skin ailments if the patient can be kept out of work for five to seven days. But that is out of the question for the farmers and the women making the seed balls. Asks Mohammad Yasir Sutar “If we do not work for five to seven days, what will we eat?”
Buying gloves and boots is also simply not within the meager household budgets of the farmers. As if all these weren’t enough, other woes also await them.
Among others, the growth of water hyacinth used to make the cultivation beds are now waning. Ironically, the culprit is climate change, which drove many farmers to revive the practice of floating gardens in the first place.
“Owing to climate change and tidal flow, higher salinity is penetrating inland through the rivers and creeks,” says a paper prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture. “Salinity affects not only crops but also floating beds. Growth of water hyacinth is generally disturbed in saline water. Thus, it is likely that availability of water hyacinth in future may be reduced. Unavailability of water hyacinth may pose a threat to the production system.”◉