PUTIA VILLAGE, Bangladesh (AlertNet) - The world may have agreed to start work on a new accord to cut planet-warming emissions due to come into force by 2020, but for many poor people in developing countries, that is an age away. Rice farmers in flood-prone Bangladesh need solutions to their climate woes now, and are finding that prawns may be the unlikely answer.
Located in the Bay of Bengal, low-lying Bangladesh has become one of the most well-known faces of climate change - a riverine land increasingly battered by cyclones and floods that frequently inundate vast swathes of farmland, displacing communities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty and food insecurity for millions.
“For months every year, we have (had) to find some other way to make money... like manual labour work or breeding cheap fish like tilapia in our flooded fields,” says 48-year-old farmer Raj Mia, standing by his waterlogged rice field in the mud-and-thatch village of Putia, 60 km east of the capital, Dhaka. “It was a struggle as we didn’t earn much.”
Raj, like millions of other rice farmers, lives on the flood plains that make up about 80 percent of the South Asian nation.
Every year, the monsoons thrash down on this fertile rice-growing region crossed by a network of rivers, submerging some 60 percent of the country’s agricultural land and rendering much of it unusable for up to six months, until water levels recede in November.
But last year, Raj and other farmers in Bangladesh’s Comilla district began breeding prawns, alongside their usual fish, in their flooded fields - boosting their incomes almost six-fold in some cases - and learning business skills to help them sell the crustaceans in competitive local markets.
“We earned 80,000 taka ($1,038) this year,” says Fatuma Begum, Raj’s wife, shyly hiding her face with the corner of her orange sari. “It’s changed our lives ... We have been able to send our children to school now.”
The initiative was introduced in March last year by a local microfinance charity, the Centre for Community Development Assistance (CCDA). It is now spreading across Comilla district, with more than 250 families living off freshwater prawn culture half the year and cultivating rice paddy on the same land for the other six months.
“By providing people with small loans and necessary training, our ‘prawn culture in floodplains’ project introduces high-value fish like prawns to local farmers and helps them use their land more effectively,” says CCDA Executive Director M. A. Samad.
“This will develop business entrepreneurs, improve livelihoods, and such schemes are already helping to lift many of these flood-hit communities out of poverty,” says Samad, adding that the success of the pilot scheme has inspired authorities to replicate it in other flood-prone areas of the country.
RURAL ECONOMIES STRUGGLING
Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world due to its geographic location and topography. It is the drainage basin for rivers that start in the snowy Himalayan mountains of India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, including the massive Ganges, Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers. It is criss-crossed by about 250 rivers, a few of which swell to up to 8 km (5 miles) wide during the monsoon season which runs from June to September.
As a result, most of Bangladesh is a flood plain. It is good arable land but also at high risk of floods that frequently take lives and destroy crops, livestock and property in this impoverished nation where one third of the population lives below the poverty line.
With 70 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people living in rural areas and largely dependent on the land, the country faces an uphill struggle to improve food security and incomes, especially as climate change threatens rising sea levels, as well as more intense cyclones, floods and droughts.
Experts say microfinance initiatives that provide small loans to farmers to help them adapt to climate change impacts - such as the prawn farming scheme in Comilla, which is supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) - are key to countries like Bangladesh in battling both poverty and the effects of more severe weather.
“Smallholder farmers are the backbone of the rural economy, but they are bearing the brunt of climate change. It endangers the natural assets they depend on and ... the current speed and intensity of climate change are outpacing their capacity to adapt,” explains Thomas Rath, IFAD’s Bangladesh programme manager.
“Crop failures and livestock deaths are causing economic losses, raising food prices and undermining food security with ever-greater frequency.”
In these difficult conditions, access to financial services in rural areas is allowing the poor to manage their household cash flow, start new agricultural activities and set up small businesses, Rath says. Higher earnings and diversified livelihoods will reduce their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, he adds.
He cites another project in the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh where small loans are helping poor farmers erect cyclone shelters and protect their land from salt water intrusion by building embankments and drains to protect chars (islands made of silt deposits).
Meanwhile, in India’s Orissa state, microloans are helping farmers adapt to declining rains by promoting the cultivation of crops adapted to drier conditions, such as pigeon pea, chickpea, black gram and groundnut, Rath says.
CLIMATE CREDIT AT A COST
Microfinance is fast emerging as a way of tackling financial exclusion in South Asia. It is still considered a relatively untapped market, with over 58 percent of the region’s adult population unable to access services such as banks, ATMs, loans and deposit accounts, according to the South Asian Microfinance Network.
In Bangladesh’s Comilla district, the positive impact of the small loans provided to local farmers to start prawn farming is evident.
Narrow dusty village roads are lined on either side with large pools of water, storing their lucrative prawn and fish stocks. Fishermen cast vast nets from their rickety wooden boats in the middle of these often lake-like flooded fields, pulling in a plentiful supply – not just of prawns but other fish too, such as tilapia and carp. The prawns, they say, fetch around 1,500 taka ($19) per kilo.
Villagers talk of visible signs of development, which they attribute to the income generated by prawn farming, including the construction of toilets and more children in school. Rural women are also being empowered as it is they who take out the credit, gaining more control over household budgets.
But the small loans, roughly around 50,000 taka ($650), do not come cheap at an interest rate of 26 percent. That has raised concerns among some social activists, who say such rates are unjustifiable at up to three times higher than personal loans given by banks.
Lenders like CCDA and its funder IFAD argue that high interest rates are needed to cover the operational costs of making and collecting door-to-door payments on many tiny loans in remote rural areas. Margins are small, they add, evidenced by the fact that only a few micro-lenders have grown into big companies.
And for most of the world’s poor, they argue, this type of finance remains their only possible route to obtaining credit. Many borrowers in Comilla district are inclined to agree.
“Yes, the rates for microcredit loans are high. But we don’t have a choice as banks ask for collateral which we don’t have - so it’s the best option for us at the moment,” says farmer’s wife Fatuma Begum, looking out onto her rice field-turned-prawn pond.