With tides rising, Bangladeshi farmers turn to flood-resistant crabs

The influx of salt water from rising sea levels has been incredibly destructive in low-lying Bangladesh. But for many agricultural communities, farming mud crabs may be key to fighting the economic damages brought on by flooding. 

Andrew Biraj/Reuters/File
Local residents carry parts of their dismantled house as they relocate to drier ground on July 27, 2008 in Godadhar, Bangladesh. Salt water threatens the viability of rice and tiger shrimp farming – staples in the region – but it doesn't interfere as drastically with the harvest of mud crabs.

Kishore Mondol, a farmer in the low-lying deltas of southern Bangladesh, points at the four-foot-high platform of gray clay he and his wife have just struggled to build.

The mound is intended to keep their next home above ever-rising floodwaters. But even it won’t last long, he fears.

“Within the next 10 years, monsoon high tides will be flowing over this level,” he predicts.

With tidal floods fast worsening as a result of more intense rainfall and sea level rise, "this is the third time within 20 years we are moving our home higher,” complained Mr. Mondol, whose village lies in Khulna district, at the head of southwestern Bangladesh’s Sundarbans tidal forests.

Sea level rise and worsening storm surges are making life increasingly precarious in southern Bangladesh’s low-lying deltas, flooding homes and filling fields with salty water that keeps rice from growing.

Many former farmers have switched to raising tiger shrimp – now Bangladesh’s second biggest export after garments – in shallow ponds. But even the shrimp are now dying in many areas, hit by viral infections, local people say.

Instead, as waters continue to rise, women in the region have hit on a new, tough, and flood-friendly harvest: mud crabs.

In a village where most land lies 10 feet or less above sea level, and is flanked by major rivers on either side, flooding is an ever worsening worry for residents of Joymoni.

When this year’s monsoon arrives, “we fear water may come as high as 3 feet, especially during the full moon, as our side of the village has no protective embankment since cyclones Sidr washed it away” in 2007, Tripti Mondol, Kishore’s wife, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Already, “salt is seeping into the very heart of our soil,” she said.

Subrat Chandra Gayen, another resident of Joymoni, said nearly 80 percent of families have had to give up on rice farming, which once provided food and an income for most people in the area, including women who sowed, harvested, and threshed it.

The loss of income has driven some farmers – particularly men – to migrate and look for work in cities, while many families raising shrimp have fallen into debt after taking high-interest loans from shrimp traders that they are now unable to pay back, local people say.

The Bangladesh government predicts rising sea level could displace about 20 million people from Bangladesh’s coastal districts by 2050.

Crabs, however, may help solve a big share of the problems, the village’s women say.

Khadija Begum, now does a brisk business buying and releasing batches of baby mangrove mud crabs into a shallow pond she has rented for $48 a year from a local land owner now living in Dhaka, the capital.

The tiny crabs, their shells still soft, are caught in local creeks by fishermen. She feeds them small amounts of waste fish once a day, she said, and within two weeks they are six times their original weight and have developed hard brown shells.

Ms. Begum catches them, ties their legs with jute string or straw, and packs them carefully into large bamboo baskets, which she sends her husband to sell at the Buddhamari local market, about 1.2 miles away.

From there they are transported to Dhaka and flown live to major importers in China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, she said.

Fish traders grade the catch, with crabs with claws broken worth less, but those with a clump of bright orange-yellow eggs on their bellies – a delicacy for which South East Asians are willing to pay more – worth up to $26 a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds).

Begum and her husband’s earnings from crab sales now add up to between $780 and $840 a year, she said. The money has helped them send their eldest son to college in Khulna – a source of huge pride.

Bangladesh’s fisheries department, working with nonprofit organizations, has been encouraging farmers with salt-tainted fields to take up crab farming since 2011, with poor women a particular target for help.

Unlike shrimp farming, crabs can be raised in small ponds and demand less up-front investment, said Muhammod Zulfikar Ali, mayor of Mongla Port municipality.

Returns are also quick and, at the moment, higher than for shrimp and with lower disease risk, he said.

Crab farming’s growing momentum is reflected in Bangladesh’s export figures. According to the government’s Export Promotion Bureau, crab exports have climbed from $7 million in 2011 to more than $23 million in 2016.

Twenty percent of the country's current harvest is coming from backyard pond farmers in the country’s coastal Satkhira, Bagerhat, and Cox's Bazar districts, according to government data.

To further boost the industry, the government fisheries department is now trying to establish crab hatcheries. Currently most young crabs are caught in the wild, and catches have been falling with growing demand.

Some experts, however, warn that crab farming may not be enough to sustain families in increasingly risk-prone southern Bangladesh.

“Although crabs farms can be a lifeline against climate impacts they will only aggravate this unsustainable high-salinity” situation, said Pavel Partha, a researcher with the Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK).

Coastal villages, for instance, are running out of water they can drink. Many now have to buy potable water for nine months a year, from October to June, they say. Buying about 5 liters a day per person costs Mondol’s family about $3 a month.

Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for charity ActionAid, said local peoples’ ability to adapt to the changing conditions was limited.

“This place is going to vanish in the next 20 years, the way the sea is rising,” he said, while visiting Joymoni. “Unsafe migration or crab farming are people’s own efforts, what we call autonomous adaptation, but it can only provide limited relief.”

Government loans, to help communities scale-up adaptation efforts that work, could help, he said. But “there is a limit to how much [people] can raise their houses”.

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to With tides rising, Bangladeshi farmers turn to flood-resistant crabs
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2018/0319/With-tides-rising-Bangladeshi-farmers-turn-to-flood-resistant-crabs
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe