Bangladesh food

When climate adaptation goes wrong

Asadul Islam looks over the edge of a boardwalk on his pond in southwestern Bangladesh and watches hundreds of caged crabs float beneath him. He seeks those who have lost their hard shell. When he finds one, he has a short window to freeze it and send it off for sale to westerners who love soft-shell crabs. He hopes this new business venture will bring in the wealth that eluded his father.

For generations, Islam’s family has grown rice. But from the 1980s, rising seas and storm surges began pushing salt water across the banks of tidal rivers and ruining their crops. His father, along with millions of other coastal farmers, decided to flood the family’s rice paddies with brackish water and fill the brackish ponds with black tiger prawn fry.

Supported by the Bangladeshi government, which saw prawn and prawn production as a lucrative export opportunity, and development organizations which heralded the transition from paddy field to pond as a smart adaptation to climate change, farmers have flooded more than 275,000 hectares, mainly in the southwest, for intensive aquaculture.

The thinking was this: if the farmers couldn’t stop the salt water from poisoning their rice paddies, they could welcome it and use it to grow something else. It was a way of adapting, and for a while it worked. Commercial shrimp, known as “white gold”, has become one of the country’s most valuable export products.

However, the tradeoff for a few years of income has been decades of environmental degradation and sometimes violent conflict that show how some adaptations can end up making people more, not less, vulnerable.

“Shrimp aquaculture has been called a climate change adaptation strategy. Some development agencies say this is the only option for areas that are already submerged,” says Kasia Paprocki, a geographer at the London School of Economics and author of Looming Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh. “But it contributes to many social and ecological problems that it claims to prevent.”

Bangladesh is facing rising seas, intensifying cyclones, extensive flooding and extreme heat. And while the country struggles to insulate itself from the effects of the climate crisis, its southwestern region is reeling from the unintended consequences of a shrimp farming boom – a solution that has become a problem.

Asadul Islam and a young assistant search for moulted crabs they are raising at an aquaculture farm in Gabura, Bangladesh. Soft-shelled crabs are destined for foreign markets. Photo by Stephen Robert Miller.

Islam lives on Gabura, an island of around 40,000 people perched north of the Bay of Bengal and the dense mangrove forest of the Sundarbans. It’s a precarious place to call home. After Cyclone Amphan made landfall here in May 2020, parts of the island remained underwater for most of the next 18 months.

Today, people shore up their houses with earth, seal their canoes with fresh black tar and prepare for the coming cyclone season. The government of Bangladesh has committed around $108 million to repair the island’s crumbling protective embankments. But even though the work is complete – and many locals doubt it – Gabura remains poisoned from within.

Over the past three decades, more than two-thirds of its farmland has turned into a silver wasteland of saline shrimp ponds. These heavily fertilized lagoons have quickly become breeding grounds for diseases like white spot baculovirus, which attacks the bodies of shrimp and can destroy a crop in a week.

People crossing a flooded road after Cyclone Amphan hit in 2020. Thousands of shrimp enclosures were also swept away. Photo by Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

To compensate for losses, farmers often overload ponds, but the strategy is not sustainable. “The virus first attacked about 10 years ago,” says Islam. “We started with 500 prawns, but then had to increase to 1,000 and then 3,000 in the same spot because so many prawns died.”

The side effects of intensive shrimp fishing have created conflict in impoverished rural communities. Farmers complain that brackish water seeping from shrimp ponds is poisoning their fields. Environmentalists say animal feed and fertilizers harm local biodiversity. The unemployed complain that farming shrimp requires a fraction of the labor needed to grow rice, and the hungry watch as the fertility of the land is used to raise a priority commodity for export.

Even drinking water has suffered – salt pollutes more than 50% of Bangladesh’s coastal aquifers, and although cyclones and relentless tides are largely to blame, the proliferation of brackish aquaculture is to blame.

A single well in Gabura sinks deep enough to bring in fresh water, so residents depend on six surface pools that collect rainwater for drinking, cleaning and bathing. According to a 2019 government study, three of these ponds were used for aquaculture and only one provided drinking water.

The freshwater crisis has taken a heavy toll on women, intensifying existing gender inequalities. In areas with high salinity, women and adolescent girls walk an average of about four miles a day in search of clean water for their families.

Anyone hoping to solve these problems has to face the money that aquaculture brings to a country that is aggressively developing. In the year before the Covid pandemic cut global supply lines, Bangladesh exported 30,000 tonnes of prawns worth nearly $350 million.

Shrimps in a processing plant in Bangladesh. Photo of Managing Director Masum Billah.

Since the 1980s, development agencies have pushed shrimp farming as a way to lift coastal communities out of poverty, Paprocki says, despite the tensions it has created and findings that it has had little impact on poverty. Experts say the lion’s share of revenue has been captured by industry intermediaries and wealthy landowners with political ties.

This “shrimp mafia”, as those who control the industry locally are often called, have used intimidation and, at times, violence to control the shrimp trade. One of the worst incidents, says Topon Gualdar, a rice and vegetable farmer in a village about 40 miles north of Gabura, happened in 1990 when a wealthy businessman brought in an armed gang to forcibly cut an embankment so that the land can be flooded and seized for shrimp ponds.

“We strongly protested,” Gualdar said. “We didn’t want to destroy our trees, our land, our water, our livelihoods.” During the clash, the gang killed a woman, but Gualdar and the others held their ground, and the village’s fields are still full of rice paddies and vegetable gardens.

Similar uprisings have occurred elsewhere. But in Gabura, where holes and pipes that suck brackish water through embankments weakened the island’s fortifications before Cyclone Amphan, residents say action to defend the land is unlikely.

A Water Development Board engineer said that when the embankment is rebuilt, shrimp farming in Gabura will be restricted to a designated area to avoid conflict. However, investigations by Transparency International Bangladesh, an anti-corruption organisation, found that Water Board officials and local politicians often resolve cases of dike cutting in favor of shrimp farmers. “As a result, such illegal logging is still ongoing,” a 2020 report from the organization revealed.

Bangladesh is racing to stay ahead of rising waters and needs money to protect its people – $3 billion to $8 billion by 2030 for adaptation measures, according to some estimates. In this environment, industries that generate significant economic activity are gaining momentum, even though their problems are well documented.

There are alternatives – less intensive methods of shrimp farming, cooperative ownership models that protect community values ​​- but the prioritization of intensive shrimp aquaculture leaves little room for local imaginations of how the region could otherwise adapt to climate change, Paprocki says.

On Gabura, Islam hopes his investment in soft-shell crab will pay off better than his father’s bet on shrimp, but there’s no way to be sure. He learned the trade from a Japanese frozen seafood company that was looking for producers. It seemed like a smart move: crabs cost more than shrimp, and he was told they were less susceptible to disease.

Barring further global shutdowns, trade disruptions or environmental disasters, he says he is optimistic about the future, even if business gets off to a bad start. Cold temperatures this winter killed 1,200 of his 2,000 crabs. He will stay up late to take care of the survivors and sell what he can in the morning.

Riton Camille Quiah contributed Bengali to English translation.

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