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Barriers to resilience: chronic poverty, climate change and disasters in the southwest of Bangladesh

By Caitlin Macdonald, Peggy Pascal and Dany Egreteau

Caitlin Macdonald has been working for Solidarités International as a DRR & Climate Change Officer in the Bangladesh mission for the past 12 months. She holds a Masters of Development Studies and previously worked for NGOs in Australia.

Peggy Pascal is head of the technical department at Solidarités International HQ. She is a tropical agronomist working in the humanitarian sector for the last 12 years. She has spent several years in the field in Africa and in Afghanistan working for research institutions and NGOs.

Dany Egreteau has been coordinating development and humanitarian programmes for the last six years in India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. He supervised the recent cyclone and flood responses in the southwest of Bangladesh, as well as the six month survey from which this article was developed.

This assessment was conducted by Solidarités International in partnership with local NGO, Uttaran. The article was compiled by the authors, thanks to Julie Mayans, Food Security and Livelihoods Technical Advisor at Solidarités International for her support in the process.

Bangladesh, a prone disaster delta

Situated amidst the vast Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river basins, Bangladesh is a flat deltaic land covering an area of 144,000 square kms. Eight per cent of the country is categorised as floodplain and most areas, except the highlands, are exposed to monsoonal flooding for several months every year. With approximately 150 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and classified as a ‘least developed country’ by the United Nations.

As well as high levels of poverty, Bangladesh is at high risk of multiple, ongoing disasters. According to the World Bank, 60% of global deaths caused by cyclones in the last 20 years occurred in Bangladesh. In 2012, Bangladesh was ranked fifth in the World Risk Index for natural disasters. Two recent tropical cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009) caused extensive damage (both human and financial) to the southwest.



Solidarités International opened its mission in Bangladesh in 2007, following cyclone Sidr. An emergency response programme was launched in Mathbaria Upazila focusing on water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) followed by shelter, water and sanitation access recovery activities. Since August 2011, Solidarités International has been implementing two programmes in the Satkhira District, in the southwest of the country, providing food security and shelter in response to water-logging. These prog- rammes are implemented with five other international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) through the Bangladesh NARRI Consortium (National Alliance for Risk Reduction and Response Initiatives)1. Solidarités International has also been providing WaSH support in Cox’s Bazaar District since March 2010 where large populations of unregistered refugees are living and have recently launched a food security programme in Islampur in the country’s northwest. One identified strategic objective of Solidarités International in 2013 is to ensure its programmes are mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into all its activities to mitigate the effects of future natural disasters.

While natural disasters have significant impact in Bangladesh, human-induced slowonset disasters such as excessive soil salinity are having an increasingly detrimental effect, particularly in the southwest. The objective of this study was to capture the driving factors of chronic poverty, the impacts and effects of climate change on livelihoods in the southwest coastal belt of Bangladesh, as well as to identify levels of disaster resilience and existing coping strategies being utilized. What was found was a complex array of interlinking factors which together, present significant barriers to livelihood opportunities and sustainable development for communities, and the region as a whole.




The main survey occurred in November 2011 and consisted of 12 focus group discussions (FGDs) and 59 key informant interviews (KIIs) with Union Parishad members, women’s group representatives, agriculture and fishery officers or Disaster Management of Food Ministry representatives. Two follow-up assessments utilising participatory vulnerability tools were conducted in June 2012 with FGDs and KIIs and a workshop between Solidarités International and local NGO partner, Uttaran, was held. The survey was conducted by Solidarités International and Uttaran staff in Assassuni, Shyamnagar, Dacope and Koyra Upazilas in Khulna and Satkhira Districts in the southwest of the country.

In each upazila, two types of areas were assessed: ‘frontline communities’ comprising those who were severely affected by cyclone and living on the coastal border, and the moderately affected areas which are more inland. The reasons behind distinguishing between these two areas were to:

A dangerous conversion from rice to shrimp production

Today, the region continues to be an agro-based community heavily reliant on the natural environment for income generation and livelihood options. Once in the rice bowl of Bangladesh, the introduction of the embankment system in the 1960s and subsequent proliferation of shrimp farming throughout the region has significantly contributed to soil salinity levels so high, rice production has been severely impacted or in many areas, is no longer possible. As shrimp production gained popularity throughout the 1990s, external entrepreneurs entered the region, buying or leasing land from small and medium rice farmers to establish large shrimp farms, moving land control and economic gains from shrimp production outside the region.

With the conversion of rice to shrimp, daily labour opportunities have decreased and many are forced to migrate outside of the region or at times, to leave Bangladesh to seek employment. Increasing salinity levels and decreased rice production (and therefore rice husk for cattle feed) has resulted in livestock rearing and homestead gardening opportunities becoming more difficult to sustain.

Many people as a result have turned to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to the Bengal Tiger, for fishing in the rivers and bay and the collection of natural resources. This option however, poses several dangers including tiger and pirate attacks to those forced to live in the forest for several days at a time. Others with access have turned to fishing and crab fattening. As a result, people have reported smaller catches and an increased difficulty for fishermen, solely reliant on this livelihood for income, to survive. Both these coping strategies put increasing pressure on natural resources in the region with people needing to travel further into the forest for resources and fight over depleting fish stocks.

Those still involved in rice or agriculture production face decreasing crop yields and increasing pressure to convert to shrimp. Table 1 shows the negative impacts of shrimp farming on livelihoods options compared to rice-prawn combined farming. Rice farmers throughout the assessed areas reported neighbouring shrimp farms intentionally flooding paddy fields with saline water, and local land disputes and community conflict were also said to be prevalent.

Table 1: Comparing impacts of shrimp and rice-prawn Gher2 Farming System in Bangladesh
Particulars Shrimp Gher Farming Rice-prawn Gher Farming
Employment status decreased increased
Income generating decreased increased
Income distribution Inequality relatively less inequality
Social status decreased decreased
Livestock negative positive
Poultry negative positive
Paddy production negative positive
Vegetables production negative positive
Health negative negative
Ecology negative negative
Environments negative friendlier
Land degradation negative positive
Salinisation negative positive

Source: Barmon, B.K., Takumi, K, & Osanami, F., 2006, Problems and Prospects of Shrimp and Rice-prawn Gher Farming System in Bangladesh, self-published.

While salinity is having serious effects on livelihood options, it is also beginning to affect other parts of life in the southwest. Levels are so high they are now threatening safe drinking water supplies as salt water enters critical water tables. A lack of fresh water is forcing women and girls to travel greater distances to access drinking water, causing health complications and exposing them to greater risk of abuse and exploitation.



Case Study:

Just prior to cyclone Aila in 2009 in Singhortoli village (Gabura Union, Shyamnagar Upazila), approximately 90% of village land was being utilised by large shrimp farms (50 – 110 bighas3/farm) with just 25 families controlling this 90%. Just under 10% of land was dedicated to small shrimp farmers and only two bighas remained dedicated to rice farming. Recently, recognizing the negative environmental effects and threat to the local drinking water supply from rising salinity, small land owners began converting land back to rice, growing Aman rice (traditionally rain-fed paddy). With access to a water table and the financial capacity to make a small investment, farmers have introduced a method of flushing the soil with fresh water prior to planting saline-resistant Aman rice varieties followed by the use of regular irrigation. As a result, the lands salinity levels were reduced, farmers’ reliance on inconsistent monsoon rains decreased and when fields flooded, they could also be pumped free of water to avoid crop damage. At the time of assessment, small rice farmers were able to produce three crops per year due to these new techniques and are able to generate four to five times as much rice per bigha in comparison to what they had previously generated.

Increasing effects of climate change on livelihoods

These increasing levels of salinity and weakened embankments significantly contribute to the vulnerability of communities to risk and impact of disaster. Cyclones Sidr and Aila caused extensive damage to this already fragile environment. Cyclone Aila damaged or fully destroyed many embankments in the southwest coastal belt region, allowing salt water to inundate the land for months at a time. Many people were displaced for months or in some cases, years afterwards. Other parts of the affected areas experienced flooding twice daily with each high tide for up to two years following Aila, due to a lack of protection from the sea. During this period, communities were unable to cultivate crops and their livelihoods suffered. As Aila hit during the shrimp harvest time, 100% of export grade shrimps were washed away. As the region’s main livelihood with more than 60% of people involved in this sector, the effect of Aila on livelihood security was devastating. According to Bangladesh’s Department of Agriculture Extension, only a minor portion of total cropland in four Upazilas could be cultivated after Aila and approximately 70-80% crop production was lost. An estimate by the Department of Fisheries and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) indicates that production of shrimp was reduced from 2,350.14 kg/h (normal year) to 470.03 kg/h.

For an area already struggling with salinity, the inundation of lands with salt water for such an extended period of time has had devastating effects. While most embankment walls have been repaired, communities continue to face serious income and food security issues with crop production struggling as a result of soil quality and salinity and some areas still facing embankment breaches from poor reconstruction. As a result, many farmers are still only able to produce a single crop per year and many struggle to engage in supplementary income-generating activities such as homestead gardening.

The increasing effects of climate change in this already fragile environment continue to increase barriers to growth in the southwest. Rising sea-levels, as observed by communities through increasing high tide levels, not only add additional pressure on the embankment system but further enhances the penetration of salinity inland via the river and canal systems. According to interviewed farmers, rain patterns have changed in the last decade, most noticeably in the last five years. They noted dry spells, a reduction of winter season rainfall and a sharp increase and erratic pattern of monsoon rains. Increasing temperatures and erratic monsoon patterns negatively affect shrimp, agriculture (including rice) and homestead gardening. Rice farmers now struggle to predict rainfall patterns, which have resulted in reduced crop yields when irrigation is not possible or affordable. As well as this, it is predicted that natural disasters such as Aila will only become more frequent, further threatening the livelihoods of populations.


While there were many examples of negative coping strategies being engaged, such as migration for daily labouring, increasing reliance on natural resources, being forced into accepting unsustainable loans through informal lenders and reducing meal and nutritional intake, examples of positive adaptation were also found.

Some small land owners have begun reclaiming previously leased land to begin shrimp farming themselves. While this action brings income back to some of the poorest segments of the community, it also continues to add to the salinity problem which in the long run will only continue to have detrimental effects on the lives of everyone in this region if not addressed.

Priorities for the region

Establishing and enhancing livelihoods resilience, maintaining food security and fostering development are now the main priorities for the region. The existing method of reactive, short-term aid delivery in this emergency prone region is insufficient in the current circumstances. The complexities of this situation require a long-term approach designed to strengthen community resilience, as well as recovery and adaptive capacity to the changing environment.

To improve the resilience of livelihoods and coping capacity of this agro-dependant region, several adaptive measures should be considered:

Fundamentally, the institutional linkage between relevant government departments such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agricultural Extension must be strengthened down to the community level. Extension Officers such as the Sub-Assistant Agricultural Officers should be encouraged and allowed to work more closely with farmers and community generally so that the flow of knowledge and information regarding adaptive strategies filters down to community level and motivates behaviour change. Strengthening linkages and implementing sustainable knowledge sharing through increased communication between government and community will facilitate improvements in agricultural practices by farmers and increase their resilience to disaster. This will also allow them to adapt to the effects of climate change now and into the future.

Currently in Bangladesh, the agriculture industry accounts for 21% of the national economy and employs approximately 48% of the workforce.4 The incorporation of DRR into livelihoods in Bangladesh is therefore critical to ensuring the increased resilience of Bangladesh as a nation. Solidarités International is aiming to use this study as the foundation of a new programme which will look at livelihoods resilience and food security based on institutional linkages and the development of sustainable agricultural practices in the southwest. Most recently, this study has contributed to the activities designed and adopted by Solidarités International under the DIPECHO VII Programme5 which was launched in March 2013, integrating the issue of livelihoods into a Community-based DRR rural approach. These activities will form a template for larger programmes in the coming years.

For more information, contact: Julie Mayans, Food Security and Livelihoods Technical Advisor at Solidarités International, email:




2A gher is modified rice fields with high, broad peripheral dykes to be used as a shrimp pond.

3A bigha refers to the size of a piece of land. The size of a standard bigha differs per region. In Satkhira District, 1 acre = 3 bighas (approx).

4Department of Environment, Ministry of Environment & Forests (2009). Adaptive Crop Agriculture Including Innovative Farming Practices in the Coastal Zone of Bangladesh. Dhaka: Climate Change Cell.

5In 1996, ECHO launched a specific programme dedicated to disaster preparedness called DIPECHO (Disaster Preparedness ECHO). See

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Reference this page

Caitlin Macdonald, Peggy Pascal, Dany Egreteau (). Barriers to resilience: chronic poverty, climate change and disasters in the southwest of Bangladesh. Field Exchange 45, May 2013. p46.



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