25 September 2015
Expansion of the shrimp industry has had heavy government support in Bangladesh.
Expansion of the shrimp industry has had heavy government support in Bangladesh.

A GCI Food Security Seminar report by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Amy MacMahon* -- Climate Change and Food Security in Bangladesh: Salt, Shrimp and Seawalls (15 Sep 2015)

Amy MacMahon's interest is in governance policies and gender power relations, and how agricultural adaptation responses are shaped by these influences. She painted a picture of a very complex and rapidly changing social and physical landscape.

Bangladesh sits on a massive river delta – 90% of its water flows in from other countries. This makes it prone to a range of environmental hazards. Climate change is merely exacerbating existing issues. Amy’s research area is in the south-west, and area particularly vulnerable to flooding, cyclones and sea level rise from climate change.

Salt intrusion has been a natural part of life on the lower delta: during the dry season, tidal river flows bring in salt, but this is flushed out in the wet season. The recent increase in salinity problems has been attributed to sea level rise, but this is only one factor. There is less flushing due to dams upstream in India. Also, the rapid growth of aquaculture has led to “river-grabbing”, diverting water to ponds or walling in areas of river to make ponds, whose salt water affects surrounding land. This infrastructure prevents water spreading across the delta land and shedding its silt, so banks of silt are deposited in the river. There is debate about whether the silt deposits will counter sea level rise to some extent.

One contributor to siltation has been the Dutch-supported construction of polders to control salinity in fields. The gated levees allow controlled flooding and draining of fields. This process is still pursued as the only option for controlling salinity, but results have been mixed through failures either of the infrastructure or the management.

The expansion of the shrimp industry has had heavy government support. A lot of politically influential people are in on the game. In some places, aquaculture is pursued to the detriment of other activities, with ponds causing salinity of neighbouring fields and groundwater. Communities may gain income but lose the resilience of growing their own food. There has also been considerable NGO support for the industry, which has helped with viral disease control and improved management.

Six seasons in Bangladesh’s climate

In Bangladesh, it is hard to differentiate the impacts of climate change from those of bad policy, or poor implementation of policy. Farmers traditionally recognise six seasons in Bangladesh’s climate, but people report that the climate has changed so that now there are only three. There is a wide range of possible impacts of climate change on food security: beyond disruptions of agriculture, extreme events also disrupt demand for labour. There is little public awareness of climate change, and some scepticism. Local authorities are unwilling to act without instruction from central government, which has been lacking.

Women are often described as being “at the frontline of climate change”, being both more vulnerable to climate change impacts, and more responsible for adaptation. Does this provide opportunities to improve their status? Women’s rights are protected under Bangladesh’s constitution, and it is seem as having achieved the Millennium Development Goal for women’s empowerment, but there are big urban-rural divides, a lot of domestic violence, and discriminatory laws such as for inheritance.

Amy evaluated NGO initiatives to address rural adaptation and incomes, using an environmental justice framework. Impacts on gender relations were often surprising. Microcredit schemes, which provide funds only to women, are being used mainly to pay for inputs to husbands’ aquaculture enterprises, and lenders have been requiring a male relative’s signature to secure the loan. A project promoting sunflower as a cash crop only targeted and trained men, but women are doing the work and households are benefiting from the oil they keep for themselves. The move from traditional crop varieties to hybrid seeds has removed women’s role as seed-savers. Increasing tendency for men to seek non-agricultural employment has meant feminisation of agriculture. This has benefited women by increasing the acceptability of women working outside the home, but while many accept this, they report that it’s not relevant to them as there is no work.

Our discussion session explored how mobile phones are changing interactions between younger men and women, how arsenic contamination of groundwater has only been partly resolved with rainwater tanks serving for part of the year, and how the polder systems lack the social organisation that ensured equitable water access in traditional irrigation systems in south-east Asia. Overall, the talk reinforced my impression of remarkable resilience and adaptability in Bangladesh, where, for all the complexity and set-backs, things seem to be moving forward.

* Amy MacMahon is a PhD Candidate in the UQ School of Social Science

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