Salt tolerant crops and halophytes are reviving fallow land in Bangladesh’s coastal areas, where rising salinity disrupts the ecosystem and affects peoples’ livelihoods. “I can finally cultivate my plot near the river”, says one farmer. In Cox’s Bazar, where host communities and Rohingya refugees share scarce resources, this climate-proofing economic intervention comes at the right time.
Rasheda (45), recalls the worst days of her life as she stands by a cultivation plot at Monkhali, Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar. The days when she worked as a domestic worker, sometimes as a day labourer. She could barely afford food, shelter, and the necessities for her children. Things got even worse after she lost her husband.
Back then, Rasheda also took up some seasonal professional activities related to fishing and homestead gardening. But nothing grew because of the high amount of salinity. Along with other farmers in that region, she tried to cultivate maize and some pulses. They only grew once, the rest of the seasons the land remained fallow.
Turning a problem into a sustainable solution
In Bangladesh, increasing salinization is a major problem in coastal areas like Cox’s Bazar, Khulna, and Barisal. People have very limited sources of income. With rising salinity levels in soil and water, cultivation became harder and harder. Arable land, damaged by salt, remains fallow due to the intrusion of saltwater.
Farmers struggle to grow sufficient food. The food that is necessary to meet household nutrition needs and to generate an income. Approximately 30% of the cultivable land in Bangladesh is in coastal areas, out of which 53% has been affected by salinity.
Seven years ago, Cordaid began working to turn this growing problem into a sustainable solution by introducing innovative technologies and salt-tolerant crop varieties that grow well in saline soil. In 2015, with funding from the Dutch Nationale Postcode Loterij (National Postcode Lottery) and with technical support from Salt Farm Texel (SFT), Cordaid implemented the pilot project ‘The salt Solution’ in Khulna and Barisal with the objective to make the fallow land cultivable again.
Cordaid and SFT did extensive soil research and, in local farming communities, introduced many new salt-tolerant crop varieties (not genetically modified but natural variants of regular crops that grow better in saline soil). Following the success of the pilot project, Cordaid received funding from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) in 2020 and began implementing the Coastal Opportunities and Agriculture Solutions to Tackle Salinity (COASTS) project in the same region.
More and more mouths to feed, less and less land for cultivation
In Cox’s Bazar district scarcity of freshwater for irrigation is remarkably high. Day by day, the gap between local demand and production is increasing with more mouths to feed and less land for cultivation. Increased salinity and scarcity of freshwater for irrigation disrupt the life and livelihood of the local community. The crisis became extreme after the Rohingya influx of 2017. Fishing, the main livelihood occupation in that region, was banned in the Naaf river and forests, that provide communities with various natural resources, were destroyed to set up camps.
With funding support from the World Food Programme, Cordaid is now implementing Saline Agriculture and Halophytes Production (SAHP), a pilot project in Teknaf Upazila, Cox’s Bazar, that creates alternative livelihood opportunities for the host community. Its aim is to improve the dietary intake and income of the farmers. Along with introducing saline tolerant high-value crops, Cordaid is also piloting high nutrient halophyte (Salicornia) and seaweed production and exploring market opportunities. These interventions enhance community-based climate change resilience and allow farmers to make better use of the available land. Over five hundred farmers are introduced to new agricultural irrigation techniques including the use of solar panels and drip irrigation.
“We can now eat fresh vegetables and sell the surplus in the market”
In Khulna, Barisal, Bagerhat, Patuakhali, and Teknaf, Cordaid collaborates with 15,500 farmers. 60% of them are women. Together, we are reviving about 17,000 hectares of fallow land for cultivation. In Teknaf, for example, 48 acres of saline land have been brought under cultivation using 21 summer and winter varieties of saline tolerant seeds. The lead farmers have prepared 29 demonstration plots. In the sea and river basin of project areas, a large number of farmers are engaged in producing saline tolerant high-value crops like capsicum, cherry tomato, broccoli, and lettuce.
“After adopting new farming techniques and technologies like seed tray planting, sack farming, pit composting, this is the first time I’m able to cultivate my piece of land near the river. We can now eat fresh vegetables and sell the surplus in the market. With the money I get from selling them, I can buy other nutritive food for my family”, said Dildara (35).
With eighteen other female farmers, Rasheda now successfully cultivates acres of land and harvests various highly nutritious and profitable crops. They now earn a better income and can send their children to school. Female farmer Samuda (33), from Hnila (Teknaf), says: “I have learned new methods and techniques of cultivation. With these new techniques, the yield is much higher “. Harvests even allow her to make savings for future plans.
Addressing challenges and improving livelihoods
Ever since 2015, Cordaid has been expanding and improving its climate-proofing economic interventions in Bangladesh’s salinity-prone coastal area. The scarcity of freshwater sources for irrigation and the limited number of salt-tolerant varieties of vegetable seeds are challenging. But with thousands of farmers, we have addressed the challenges. And we created agricultural opportunities that improve the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities in Bangladesh.
Read more about the Salt Solution in Bangladesh