Inclusive water governance for sustainable agriculture in the polders of coastal Bangladesh

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by Mou Rani Sarker, Jayanta Bhattacharya and Manoranjan K. Mondal

Bangladesh’s Ganges coast is a dynamic tapestry of rivers, estuaries, and low-lying islands. This fertile region plays a critical role in the country’s food security, but it also faces immense challenges. Cyclones, tidal surges, and salinity intrusion threaten agricultural production, impacting the lives of millions who call these polders home.

In the late 1960s, a solution emerged: polders. These low-lying areas are enclosed by earthen embankments, protecting them from saline water intrusion and high tides. Water control is key – regulators, or sluice gates, allow freshwater intake during high tides and drainage during low tides. Effective management of these gates is crucial for successful agriculture in the polders.

Empowering Communities: Participatory Water Governance

Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has embraced community participation in water management. Water Management Groups (WMGs) bring together farmers, with a mandated 30% quota for women, to manage water resources within the polders. They operate sluice gates, repair embankments, and maintain drainage channels. However, challenges remain. Diverse land topography, crop choices, and social conflicts can complicate water management decisions.

Bangladesh achieved rice self-sufficiency through the Green Revolution’s technologies. But the coastal polders haven’t reaped the same benefits. The “one-size-fits-all” approach of these technologies failed to consider the unique hydrology of the polder ecosystem.

A New Model for Sustainable Agriculture

Through research and collaboration, a new model for sustainable agriculture in the polders has emerged (Figure 1). This model integrates WMGs with Farmer Field Schools (FFS) to create “Cluster Farmer Field Schools (CFFS)”. This approach emphasizes strategic sluice gate management for optimal water control throughout the year. This allows for proper drainage before applying fertilizer to rice, early planting of dry-season crops like maize and sunflower, and periodic drainage to protect these crops from waterlogging.

Figure 1. Cluster Farmer Field School (CFFS) model for year-round cropping in the polder zone.

The implementation of this model has led to significant improvements. Land productivity has increased by 6-15 tons per hectare per year compared to traditional practices. Women’s participation in agriculture has also risen. Resource-poor women and youth have more employment opportunities, leading to improved livelihoods.

Research delves deeper into the role of women in water governance. While cultural norms and limited access to resources can hinder their participation, WMGs provide a platform for empowerment. Increased mobility, participation in decision-making, and access to training enhance women’s agency and knowledge.

Building a Resilient Future

Unlocking the full potential of polders requires a multi-pronged approach. Inclusive water governance that integrates CFFS and empowers women in WMGs is essential. Policymakers need to prioritize tailored technology dissemination and continued capacity building. By promoting sustainable farming practices and empowering women, Bangladesh can build a resilient and inclusive agri-food system in its coastal polders. This will ensure food security, improved nutrition, and better livelihoods for millions, aligning with UN Sustainable Development Goals 1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger), and 5 (Gender Equality).

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