Like millions of people across Bangladesh, Anita Bala, 45, depends on a small plot of land to support her family.
But for years nothing would grow. Her husband kept shrimp in the salt ponds on their land, but the surrounding soil was barren. Bala’s efforts to grow beans and pulses have repeatedly failed. Finally, she gave up.
Bala lives in a village in the southern coastal region of Patuakhali district, an area extremely vulnerable to floods and cyclones, and his agricultural problems were due to increased soil salinity. She is not alone. According to the Dutch NGO Cordaid, 53% of the coastline of Bangladesh is affected by salinization. By 2050, it is predicted that one in seven people in the country will be displaced by climate degradation. Sea level is expected to rise by 50cm over the same period, causing about 11% of Bangladesh’s land to be lost.
In addition to natural disasters made worse by the climate emergency, unsustainable shrimp farming exacerbates the problem, endangering the lives of those who depend on agriculture.
But the farmers of Patuakhali are adapting. Following the lead of an innovative Dutch farmer who discovered that certain varieties of fruits and vegetables can grow – and thrive – in saline soil, ICCO (now part of Cordaid) began to introduce farmers in the region to salt tolerant crops. His project, the salt solution, reached 5,000 small farmers, including Bala, who said the technique had “revolutionized” his farming practices. Salt tolerant seeds imported from the Netherlands were distributed, demonstration plots established and training in new planting methods provided. Major community farmers have been identified to help spread the word.
Potatoes, carrots, squash, beets, cabbages, Indian spinach, cilantro and more have been harvested since the start of the project in 2017. The initiative aims to reach 5,000 more farmers in ‘by 2024.
Abdul Aziz, 50, a farmer and one of the project’s community leaders, pointed to his farmland in Kumirmara village, where he harvests bitter gourds and watermelons.
“I used raised beds to plant the seeds. Raised beds offer multiple advantages: weed growth is reduced and the roots grow more easily. In between, trenches can be used for easy-growing leafy plants. And before we plant, we test the soil for salinity level using a rapid test kit, ”Aziz said.
In the past, farmers had to take soil samples at a government-run laboratory several miles away. So ICCO introduced a saline test kit that gives results in minutes and helps farmers decide which seeds to plant for maximum yield.
“Small farmers around the world will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change, such as this salinization problem. With this form of climate adaptation, we are turning a growing problem into a lasting solution. Instead of fighting the salt in the soil, we want the soil affected by the salt to be able to be used for agriculture again, ”said Masud Rana, from ICCO’s agriculture division in Bangladesh.
Four years after the start of the project, ICCO joined forces with private and public institutions to ensure the sustainability of the initiative. Partners include the Agricultural University of Bangladesh, which is adding saline agriculture to its curriculum; and the Soil Resource Development Institute, which helps inform government policy. Bangladeshi seed company Lal Teer is developing commercially viable and affordable seeds to reduce dependence on imports.
“As an aid agency, we have certain limits. If we cannot provide logistics, training and skills for farmers will be in vain, ”said Rana.
In the meantime, the Salt Solution project has improved the diets of thousands of farming families and provided a source of income through the sale of surplus crops.
“The extra money means I can pay for my son to go to high school now,” Bala said.