The coastal zone of Bangladesh is notorious for its low agricultural productivity and persistent poverty. For a long time, water salinity has been perceived as the biggest and most difficult challenge standing in the way for thriving agriculture – but what if that’s not the problem to focus on at all?
Communities may hold the keys to better water management
Scientists are hypothesizing that poor water management is the issue that separates the more than eight million people who depend on the coastal zone land from greater food security and resilience. And the communities themselves may hold the key.
“Water management links everything together,” said Guy Jones, team leader in the Blue Gold Program, a partner of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, at a meeting in October last year. “Increased agricultural production, achievable through early planting of and by avoiding catastrophe in rabi [winter season] crops, is only possible through improved water management.”
The coastal zone in Bangladesh is divided into 139 low-lying tracts of land surrounded by embankments, called polders. This is where farmers plant their crops. The polders provide some protection against tidal floods and saline water intrusion, but they are surrounded by tidal rivers that vary seasonally between saline and fresh water. This constant flux naturally impacts crops.
But, communities have the option to manage water availability and quality in a polder via a network of drainage canals and sluice gates; the challenge, however, is to coordinate the management of water within a polder or sub-polder.
Trialling ways to coordinate water and crops for best results
Scientists are working with communities in two sites in Bangladesh to test ways to collaboratively manage water and to investigate the potential benefits, which are expected to include greater agricultural productivity, resilience and profitability.
For example, one experiment includes speeding up the drainage of polders after the wet season to give farmers time to grow and harvest profitable, nutritious crops such as sunflower, maize and wheat during the rabi [winter] season, before such crops may be destroyed by pre-monsoon rains. Growing a successful winter season crop could significantly contribute to a family’s food security and income, but is only possible when water management is coordinated within the polder.
At a workshop in October last year, scientists, farmers, representatives of the water management organizations, local government officials and donors came together to discuss water management infrastructure, cropping system activities, the role of water management organizations, socio-economic impacts of poor water management as well as plans and activities for the coming season.
This year, scientists are monitoring data on cropping patterns, yields, climate, hydrology, economic viability and impact on women’s livelihoods to be able to quantify the results of alternative water management and cropping systems when the trials end in late December.
The goal is for the results and lessons learned from this pilot to help reduce the problems with food insecurity in the coastal zone through the adoption of more resilient, productive, profitable and sustainable cropping systems.