Romancing the floating garden

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah, Practical Action | Practical Action - Bangladesh
Thursday, 29 August 2013 12:45 GMT

Women work at a floating garden in Mohishkhucha, in Lalmonirhat in Bangladesh. PRACTICAL ACTION BANGLADESH/Mutakabbirul Haque

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A reality check may be in order as Bangladesh considers its climate adaptation options

This monsoon, something interesting happened to me. I found myself dealing with six unrelated requests from around the globe to comment on the floating gardens of Bangladesh.

For those not familiar with floating gardening: It is an age-old agricultural practice of Bangladesh, confined to a few southern districts. Originally, floating beds, used to grow food in flood-prone areas, were built with rice straw. But over the last few decades, there has been a gradual switch to making the beds from water hyacinth, an invader in Bangladesh’s waterways, and from other locally available plant materials.

Once the top-layer of these beds rots sufficiently, different crop seedlings are raised and vegetables are grown on them in the rainy season. In recent years, a number of non-governmental organisations have been promoting this practice in the northern parts of the country as well as the south, as a livelihood option for poverty alleviation.

It is indeed a good choice for agriculture, especially when you are surrounded by water. But I wonder if it is always the best answer – or one that warrants the recent surge of interest.

A ‘CLIMATE CELEBRITY’

In June, I published an article in which I tried to show how this indigenous agricultural technique has become a “climate celebrity” – and perhaps attracted a little too much national and international attention over the last decade.

To be sure, I am no expert on floating gardens. I have never built one. But floating gardens have always fascinated me – as they clearly fascinate others.

In late July, I was contacted by a British broadcasting house planning to make a documentary on climate change adaptation. This coincided with me having e-mail correspondence with a researcher from the Philippines working on an innovative model of floating gardening. Earlier in June, I had a good chat with an Australian environmental scientist of Bangladeshi origin. He had returned to Bangladesh after 18 years and was very interested in this soilless agriculture.

I found I could not answer even some of their relatively simple questions, despite eight years of engagement on floating gardens.

They asked: As water hyacinth easily absorbs heavy metals, what is the impact on crops grown on floating beds? Why do crops belonging to the nightshade family – such as chili, eggplant and tomato – not do well on these beds, though leafy vegetables do? What are the environmental impacts of floating gardens built with rotten plant parts? My failure to come up with answers indicates a significant lack of our knowledge on this agricultural practice.

International journals, it turns out, also are interested in the floating beds. In July, I was asked to review two unrelated manuscripts on floating gardening in Bangladesh. The first one was a review of literature on the practice. Does floating gardening in Bangladesh have sufficient presence in academic literature to be academically reviewed? To me, the short answer is “Not really”.

This was quite clear in the second paper. Its author(s) could not find or consult enough related articles, and thus came to an unbalanced conclusion about the suitability of floating gardening under a changing climate.

Finally, I was at a seminar recently where a study on climate-induced migration from the coast of Bangladesh was shared. In the open discussion, a development worker quite strongly talked in favour of floating gardening as a fantastic agricultural option in the saline-prone coastal area.

I had to note that water hyacinth cannot survive in heavily salty water, and that many places of coastal Bangladesh is now devoid of water hyacinth as salinity crossed crucial levels in recent years.

ESCAPING THE ROMANCE

I also, probably rather rudely, pointed out how our ‘romantic’ views on floating gardening often make us unrealistically biased towards this agro-technique, without investing time and resources to know it better.

This year, as in the last few years, the monsoon has brought insufficient rain to Bangladesh. That has led to less water hyacinth, and hindered the building of floating gardening in new areas of Bangladesh.

When the climatic events, such as rainfall, are becoming so uncertain, how a technology like floating gardening, so much dependent upon weather events, still be seen as the most feasible climate change adaptation option?

I believe it is the time we escape the charm of floating gardening created by development practitioners and answer some simple questions. We need agricultural researchers to undertake systematic research on floating gardening. Only such scientific studies can help us to understand the real opportunities under a changing climate.

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He can be reached at haseeb.irfanullah@practicalaction.org.bd