Life among the lilies

During the rainy season, when the water levels get so high that the house is waist-deep in water, Monimala helps her husband to pile waterlilies on top of each other in the floodwaters. Over this heap of floating water hyacinths, they stack some bamboo and then “secure” the whole raft with another bamboo pole. The biomatter construction, which must be topped up each day with more rotting lilies, will only support Monimala and her husband, so their two goats and cow must be sold off or lost to flooding. Their four daughters, aged 8-14, live in a tree, precariously perched for weeks in its branches. When any of them needs the toilet, they wait until night, when a neighbour fetches them in a boat and rows them to bushes. One of the children was confronted with a cobra during her ablutions.

Monimala’s village of Baikanthapur is in Gopalganj district in the southwest of Bangladesh, but it could be anywhere in this low-lying nation that is crisscrossed by rivers and canals at the foot of the world’s third biggest water system, the GMB, the confluence of the Ganges (called the Padma here), the Meghna and the Brahnaputra (Jamuna) Rivers. 70% of the country is under water during the annual monsoon, and the flooding and its effects are getting worse. Every year 2.5 billion tonnes of silt comes down these rivers providing welcome nutrients to farmers, but depositing sediment in such quantities that canals and rivers that used to reach the Bay of Bengal, now dribble to nothing en route. The Farakka Barrage that we saw in India’s West Bengal is partly to blame for slowing the flow so that sediment is no longer flushed to the oceans. It is just one of at least 20 high dams and 21 barrages in India that abstract waters from the Ganges for irrigation and to recharge groundwater supplies exhausted through tubewell-pumping. And India’s secretive National Water Development Agency is also planning a collection of large-scale inter-basin water transfer projects that will mean more dam building and more diversion of water from the GMB river system.

Couple this with Bangladesh’s own poor river management, and rising sea levels that produce higher tides and slow incoming freshwater further, and the result is massive and prolonged water-logging and flooding throughout the country. From Monimala’s village in the south to Sylhet in the northeast, land is water-logged for 6 months of the year. It means starvation for the poorest, who cannot farm or work on others’ farms, and an increase in disease and poverty for the majority.

I came to Gopalganj to see a potential solution to the food problem: hydroponics. There are a few villages here where for several years people have been using the prolific water hyacinths to create floating vegetable gardens called baira that provide vital food supplies during the wet season. Similar floating platforms are used in Lake Imle in Burma and in parts of Assam, but the practice is restricted to small, isolated areas. Researchers at the Bangladesh Centre for Agricultural Studies are trying to experiment with the technique so that it can be adapted for other areas of the country and elsewhere. When we arrive at the BCAS wetland centre, there are a few 5-metre by 2-metre bairas floating in a pond of water that is surrounded on all sides by mud banks, or polders. Each is a different colour according to the vegetable crop growing on it, from spinach to chillies, to brinjal and gourd. In practice, bairas extend for kilometres, but the rainy season has not yet arrived.

BCAS scientists are experimenting with alternatives to lilies for areas where there is a paucity of water hyacinths. They are trying a system of inner-tubes from car tyres, topped with bamboo, where seedlings grow in biomatter piled on the top. And in the haors of the northeast, where the entire region becomes a vast lake of wind-induced waves, they are trying smaller floating gardens made with rice and wheat stalks that are secured to the perimeters of the waters so they don’t disintegrate as fast.

It won’t solve the problem of where these flooded people live during monsoon, when even the fishing is more difficult in the swollen waters, but it might give them some food options during the hardest half-year and reduce the numbers forced to migrate in search of food and work.

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