The Sundarbans, a vast forest in the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal, are considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Lying adjacent is Sabkhali, a largely agricultural village, highly vulnerable to climate change and tidal surges, salt water intrusion, and waterlogging. The area is also very vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones Sidr and Aila, which devastated the area in 2007 and 2009.
In addition to the issue of high salinity in the groundwater, there is also a shortage of above-ground fresh water. After Cyclone Aila struck in 2009, Sabkhali Canal filled with silt. It still held water, but not enough to support the village’s crops throughout the dry season.
In 2014, Mangroves for the Future (MFF) teamed up with the Bangladesh arm of Caritas, a global confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organisations, to support community-based water and farmland management projects. This would help Sabkhali farmers improve their resilience and food security.
Through the project, a group of villagers re-excavated the 2km-long canal, improving its capacity to store rainwater. Since the area of land that can be cultivated during the winter dry season depends on the amount of water stored over the summer, the Sabkhali community established a democratically elected executive committee with a 50/50 gender ratio that would equally distribute irrigation water and its corresponding land for the 360 farming households to use in the winter. This way, everyone gets an equal share of water as a common pool resource, access to land for cultivation, and an opportunity to earn a living. To ensure that siltation in the canal continues to be kept under control, the community also created a fund which farmers contribute to equally.
Re-excavating the canal has proved particularly beneficial to women, who were previously forced to walk miles to collect water for household use, and now only need to walk a short distance to the canal. Women in Sabkhali, as in much of the world, hold one of the largest stakes in effective water governance, and the gender composition of the executive committee was designed to reflect this. With more free time, women have been able to participate in decision-making processes regarding their vital resources. By the end of the project in 2015, they made up 50% of the cooperative.
A DREAM come true
Women were also the key beneficiaries of Caritas’ follow-up initiative, the Development of Rural Economy through Agro-aqua-livestock Management (DREAM) project, supported by a grant from MFF as well as national and international donors. The grants were used to establish six community enterprises to ensure sustainable use of fresh water and byproducts of agriculture by integrating aquaculture, horticulture and livestock-rearing with rice farming. Fish farms were set up; wheat, vegetables and watermelon were introduced as less water-intensive crops; and attempts were made to introduce sheep and poultry.
While the poultry husbandry initiative failed because the duck and chicken breeds were not native and therefore vulnerable to the cold, around 800 kg of fish were produced in 2017. Crop production has also doubled in last three years. In the future, only native poultry breeds will be used, which is expected to yield more favourable results.
Due to increased availability of fresh water, the varieties of fish and birds in the canal and the farmland have increased in the last three years. The farmers have also planted more than 2,000 salt-tolerant fruit saplings along the dykes of the canal, creating a greener landscape. Due to increased salinity levels after cyclone Aila, grasses disappeared from the croplands in the area adjacent to the canal. Since 2015, the grasses have started to reappear, indicating reduced soil salinity as a result of better irrigation.
The canal in 2014, directly after re-excavation: Note the shelves of lighter soil on both sides of the canal, which mark the height of the canal bed prior to excavation © Caritas Bangladesh
The canal in 2016: These chicken coops, as well as the saplings further up the bank, are part of the new integrated farming methods introduced through the DREAM project © Caritas Bangladesh
Participatory management for the future
The DREAM initiative has demonstrated how coordinated action at the community level can be successful and sustainable. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has already recognised this model as a disaster risk reduction strategy and requested that two Union Disaster Management Committees in Shyamnagar scale up their interventions. The MFF Bangladesh National Coordinating Body (NCB) and the Ministry of Environment and Forests have discussed the reclamation of canals and other common pool resources in other coastal areas, and have advocated for community-based management of these resources. While no specific plans have so far been made, the NCB is seeking opportunities to replicate the Sabkhali model elsewhere.
With MFF’s support, the small enterprise groups, which ensure sustainable use of fresh water and byproducts of agriculture, have also linked with the government's poverty eradication programme, the Ekti Bari Ekti Khamar Project, run by the Palli Sanchay Bank (PSB). This is a microfinance scheme in which the bank provides a loan, equal to a community organisation’s deposit, at 1% interest. All six community enterprises registered with the PSB, allowing them to continue scaling up their activities even after the DREAM project had officially closed.
This story was contributed by Md Shahad Mahabub Chowdhury, National Coordinator for MFF Bangladesh. Shahad drafted the piece following the IUCN Strategic Communications for Conservation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand.
Mangroves for the Future (MFF) is a partnership-based regional initiative which promotes investment in coastal ecosystem conservation for sustainable development. MFF focuses on the role that healthy, well-managed coastal ecosystems play in build-ing the resilience of ecosystem-dependent coastal communities in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam. The initiative uses mangroves as a flagship ecosystem, but MFF is inclusive of all types of coastal ecosystem, such as coral reefs, estuaries, lagoons, sandy beaches, sea grasses and wetlands. MFF is co-chaired by IUCN and UNDP, and is funded by Sida, Norad, Danida and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Thailand.