Pumpkins in the Sand
An innovative sandbar cropping technique is helping fight hunger and poverty in Bangladesh.
As Nazmul Islam Chowdhury surveyed the scene at the Pumpkin Carnival held at Taluk Shahbaz in Rangpur, Bangladesh, he couldn’t help but indulge in a rare moment of reflection. “It was a war against poverty, and war against hunger,” he said. “And now we can finally declare a small victory.”
Chowdhury is the Head of the Extreme Poverty Program at Practical Action, an international charity, founded by the eminent economist E.F. Schumacher, dedicated to using technology to help communities fight poverty in developing countries. Since 2005, he and his colleague Nirmal Chandra Bepary have been equipping Bangladeshis with the skills and methods to grow crops on the large, arid sandy islands that appear for roughly five months during the dry season.
They use an innovative sandbar cropping technique that provides the local farmers — along with their families and communities — life-changing benefits: A source of work and means of supporting themselves, and most importantly, reliable nutrition when food supplies dwindle and access to fresh water is extremely limited.
For communities in coastal Bangladesh, and rural communities in developing countries around the equator, this agricultural advance could not have come at a better time.
The harsh realities of food insecurity
For much of the Bangladeshi population, food insecurity is a fact of life — and the problem is only getting worse. A combination of flooding, erosion and expansion of human settlements costs Bangladesh large swaths of arable land each year, often leaving infertile sand deposits in its place. By 2050, some estimate that the country will have lost 35 percent of its arable land, while the population will exceed 200 million.
The rural regions along Bangladesh’s Tista, Bhramaputra and Ganges rivers, where the sandbars emerge, have proven especially vulnerable to the effects of unpredictable and irregular weather events. Droughts create shortages, floods destroy crops, and harvests from the rainy season can’t sustain residents through the dry periods.
Since Practical Action Bangladesh earned a spot in Securing Water for Food’s innovator program in 2014, they’ve been able to expand sandbar cropping to more and more farmers. Doing so has benefits beyond nutrition and income, says Chowdhury, who refers to the practice as “super agriculture with hidden impacts.” Sandbar cropping goes “far beyond just growing squash,” he explains. It’s tied to “economic growth, environmental protection, women’s empowerment, sustainable land management, and access to scarce resources.”
The innovation helps young people in rural areas become an asset to their communities rather than a burden to be cared for. It ensures that, in Chowdhury’s words, “No child will cry to their mom for food, and no mom will be unable to feed her children.”
Carnival celebrates success
The April 16th carnival at Taluk Shahbaz celebrated a successful harvest from over 120 farmers and their families. Over the previous year, they overcame repeated sandstorms that killed young plants, flooding that wrecked a number of their pumpkin pits, and hail that destroyed 2000 metric tons of crops. Their experiences and ultimate success, Chowdhury said, have helped the farmers become self-sufficient. The robust pumpkin harvest has even led Practical Action Bangladesh to experiment with other sandbar crops, including a range of high-value plants, such as watermelons, baby corn, parsley, beet root, sunflowers, and marigolds.
All told, over 600 people — including policymakers, researchers, and experts from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) — attended the carnival. Sandbar cropping needs more support to truly make an impact, says Chowdhury, and events like the carnival help build it. With increased funding and policy support, the small, but impactful innovation could bring food and income to millions of vulnerable people in other areas of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Moreover, it could play a key role in helping similarly affected regions around the world adapt to the effects of unpredictable and irregular weather events.
Financing for short-term, agricultural loans to farming families and operational access to currently restricted land would help. Assistance from governments could also help to scale sandbar cropping and application of other innovations like at a systemic level to reach many more people than NGOs could alone.
For now, Chowdhury noted, the successes on display at the festival should show academics, funders, and government leaders that “a small investment can make a big difference” in the lives of people struggling for survival.
The sandbars blooming with pumpkins show just how right he is.
The Hattaway team co-created this story with Practical Action and Securing Water for Food, an organization working with entrepreneurs and scientists around the world to help farmers grow more food with less water. You can help Practical Action fight poverty in developing countries by sharing this story or making a donation today.