Floating Farms in Bangladesh

by Emma DeCamp, Research Associate

A couple weeks ago I attended a screening of a collection of short films from the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. Cinematography of billowing avalanches in Colorado, a pilot’s view of green mountains in Alaska, and condensed huffy breaths from the mouths of sled dogs in northern Canada eased me into my seat and provided respite from my busy city life. A deep curiosity about the human connection to land wove each of these films together into a narrative about the foundations of human identity, rooted in the natural environment.

One film in particular resonated with my interest in resilient [1] architecture and design: Justin DeShield’s Adaption Bangladesh: Sea Level Rise about the extreme resilience of the Bangladeshi people in the face of rising seas.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated and one of the lowest-lying countries in the world making it disproportionally vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change. 46% of the Bangladeshi population live just 33 feet (10 meters) above sea level, indicated on this map in red [2]:

(The Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University)

People in the low-elevation coastal zone are disproportionately poorer than people outside of the low-elevation coastal zone.[3] These people depend on agriculture to survive. During the rainy season, however, when rivers flood, their livelihoods are compromised. Due to sea level rise these floods are intensifying and lasting longer, inundating arable land. Agricultural productivity has dropped more than 25,000 hectares due to saltwater intrusion in recent years.[4]

Despite these realities, the majority of Bangladeshi people have chosen to stay in their native country and innovate to accommodate their needs. Many of the Bangladeshis interviewed in DeShield’s documentary voiced that they would rather adapt to the changing landscape than become climate refuges. Their choice reflects the importance of place to their identities and livelihoods. The camera lingered on a boy sitting on top of wobbly, exposed beams, remnants of washed up infrastructure. The boy, literally gripping onto the ruin for the heritage it possesses, exemplifies a common human resistance to abandon one’s traditional land.

As tides encroach, farmers must reconsider their operations. However, rather than seeking other modes of income, many farmers have adopted a technique to float their farms on the river floodwater.

(New York Times)

First, farmers collect water hyacinths, aquatic weeds that grow abundantly in Bangladesh, and replant them to establish a foundation for the riverine raft. Once the water hyacinths are rooted, rows of bamboo reeds make a platform. Farmers plant an additional layer of water hyacinth on top, which interlaces with the weeds below, for added stability. Once the structure is established, the farmers spread a combination of cow dung, organic fertilizer, and dirt to provide soil for the crop. Often, farmers first sow seeds in a ball of compost, to promote early seed germination, and then transfer them to the raft. Leafy vegetables, lady fingers, gourds, eggplant, pumpkin, and onions can typically be found growing on the rivers in Bangladesh.[5]

(Practical Action)

By floating their crops, farmers can feed their families during the monsoon season and fill previously barren marketplaces with extra yields to generate income. I saw the agrarian livelihoods in Bangladesh as a case study for human innovation and resilience.

The scene cut drastically, from the river banks of Bangladesh to a futuristic architecture model depicting a floating farm designed by an innovative Barcelona architecture firm. An aerial shot panned over the sleek, white module, glistening in pristine waters. The designers envision a two-million-square-foot, triple-decker barge with fish farms on the bottom level, a hydroponic greenhouse above, and solar panels on the roof to power the operation.[6] The roof also incorporates skylight openings to provide ample sunlight for the plants as well as gutters to harvest rainwater for irrigation.[7] The farm would function autonomously by collecting sensor data and administering the adequate amounts of water, light, and nutrients accordingly. Although this design vision is ahead of the curve, riding the ‘Internet of Things’ wave, its foundational idea is similar to, perhaps adopted from, the floating farms constructed to withstand rising seas and uphold agrarian livelihoods in Bangladesh.

(Forward Thinking Architecture)

At MKThink, we consider the business and human case for intelligent design. ‘Smart’ building technologies, such as sensors, can help businesses run more efficiently, ultimately benefiting their bottom line. The idea of an autonomous floating farm meets the business case. Sensor data will refine farm operations for maximum efficiency. The farm could potentially yield 8.1 tons of fruits and vegetables and 1.7 tons of fish annually.[8] What strikes me the most, however, is the capacity for floating farms to play a role in solving food crises and other challenges brought on by climate change.

[1] Resilience can be defined as the ability of a socio-ecological system to withstand, respond to, and adapt to stresses and shocks, either physical (e.g. climate), biological (e.g. disease), social (e.g. conflict), or financial (e.g. market fluctuation).

[2] NPR

[3] Scroll

[4] IRIN

[5] FAO

[6] Smithsonian

[7] EcoWatch

[8] MIC