What will the next phase of floating agriculture look like?
If we track the history of floating agriculture in Bangladesh, we may find six major phases. It is difficult to pinpoint when floating cultivation began in Bangladesh—the current reckoning goes up to 400 years ago. Although water hyacinth is now the base material to make floating beds to grow crops on them, this was not possible a couple of centuries ago as this South American aquatic plant was introduced to Bengal only in the 1890s.
In his 2009 article in Environment and History, Iftekhar Iqbal reused a map from 1922 that showed the wild spread of water hyacinth in Bengal. Since the "very seriously affected" areas included the greater Faridpur and Barishal regions—the centre of origin of floating farming in this delta—we may assume that a water hyacinth-based agro-system might have started a century ago.
However, there exists an alternative story. After harvesting, paddy stub traditionally used to be left on the field in heaps, which floated as flood water entered into the wetlands. Farmers used these floating rafts to raise seedlings and grow vegetables on them by adding a layer of soil or other organic matter. An archaeo-botanical study in south-central Bangladesh may confirm the true origin of this traditional practice.
Nevertheless, if we consider the second story of origin, the first phase of floating agriculture spans from its origin till the 1960s, when we started cultivating high-yielding rice varieties. After that, the second phase began. These new rice strains had shorter straw that decomposed quickly, thus, it was not fit for floating beds. In the search for an alternative material, water hyacinth was an obvious choice due to its aggressive abundance. In the early 1990s, Shykh Seraj featured the floating agriculture of the Barishal region in his popular series Maati o Manush on Bangladesh Television.
The third phase of this agro-practice started at the turn of this century when NGOs embraced it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) promoted this practice in Gopalganj under a community-based natural resource management project under the Sustainable Environment Management Programme (SEMP, 1998−2005) of the Government of Bangladesh and UNDP.
Soon, floating farming became a part of community development projects in Bangladesh. Around 2005, Practical Action took it to northern Bangladesh, starting with Gaibandha. Over the next 10 years, it was scaled up in several flood-prone districts of Rangpur division. Over the same period, IUCN and CARE introduced and promoted floating cultivation in the wetlands of haor regions, greater Mymensingh and northern Bangladesh under two phases of the USAID-funded SHOUHARDO programme. Other agencies, like Helvetas, also joined the efforts in the haor region. In 2010, Rangamati Hill District Council introduced this practice to the Chittagong Hill Tracts by supporting 244 floating beds along the shores of the Kaptai Lake.
NGOs exclusively worked with extreme poor families, and trained and supported them to adopt floating farming. Their projects essentially considered it as a source of household nutrition or as a means of disaster risk reduction (by raising rice seedlings on the beds), rather than a business opportunity, as was seen in south-central Bangladesh. As a result, those families mostly did not continue this innovation once the project support stopped.
The fourth phase began when a climate change dimension was added to floating agriculture. The Reducing Vulnerability to Climate Change (RVCC) project of CARE (2002−2005)—apparently the first adaptation project in Bangladesh—promoted floating cultivation as an adaptation option in the waterlogged areas of the south-western region. From then on, floating agriculture is, as I often say, "a local lad becoming a climate celebrity".
Soon, Bangladesh's climate documents picked up floating farming—the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA, 2005, updated in 2009) and the second (2012) and third (2018) national communications submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sufficiently discussed this agro-practice.
Global recognition of floating agriculture took a leap during 2014−2015. In 2014, the UNFCCC's Technology Executive Committee featured this practice as a useful adaptation technology, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) landmark Fifth Assessment Report discussed its potential weaknesses under a changing climate. In 2015, under the leadership of Bangladesh's Ministry of Agriculture, 2,500 hectares of land in Barishal, Gopalganj and Pirojpur were designated by FAO as one of 62 Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in the world.
The government of Bangladesh's promotion of floating agriculture through well-funded projects can be considered to be the fifth phase. In the second phase of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP II, 2010−2015), the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) trained and engaged 565 farmers in this practice in historically floating agriculture areas (Gopalganj, Madaripur and Pirojpur), haor regions (Habiganj, Netrokona and Sunamganj), and other flood-prone areas (Gaibandha and Manikganj).
In 2012, the DAE began implementing Extension of Floating Vegetable and Spices Cultivation Technologies as a Climate Change Adaptation Technology for Flood and Water-logged areas of Bangladesh—the first-ever government project dedicated to floating gardening. Although the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP, 2009) did not mention floating agriculture, the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF) funded this project to work with 12,000 farmers in 40 sub-districts of eight districts.
The DAE is currently implementing a much larger follow-up project (2017−2022) in 46 sub-districts of 24 districts. Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has also conducted research to make floating cultivation more efficient, and the ongoing DAE project has adopted those innovations. Among others, the Department of Women Affairs has been supporting marginalised women to raise rice seedlings and cultivate vegetables on floating beds as well. Along with actions on the ground, it is crucial to capture the experiences of the DAE and other agencies in floating farming and make them publicly available for wider awareness.
Over the past five years, scientific research on floating agriculture has gained momentum. Bangladeshi researchers have been looking into this practice as a whole, measuring yield performance of crops, analysing benefits and costs, identifying constraints farmers face, and so on. To me, such interest in knowledge creation, together with technological innovations, defines the sixth phase of floating cultivation.
Aquageoponics is a different form of floating agriculture, where a floating structure is made with bamboo or iron frames and plastic floats, pots with soil are kept on the frame to grow vegetables, and a net cage is placed under the floating structure to culture small fish. WorldFish and its partners first tried this integrated system in Barishal in 2013; Practical Action piloted it in Satkhira. Shidhulai, an NGO, further added a duck-rearing component to this system and promoted it in the Chalan Beel wetland in northern Bangladesh.
In 2005, I was fascinated to see floating gardens in Gopalganj, but I never thought this practice would last this long. The way global temperatures are rising, floods and storms are getting wilder, and seawater is invading our shores, I wonder how the next phase of floating agriculture will be written.
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah.