Industrial shrimp farming in south-west coast of Bangladesh
Gambling with nature: Leaving irreversible devastation on ecological balance
Gambling with nature: Leaving irreversible devastation on ecological balance
Bangladesh has a coastal land of 29,000 sq km which is about 20 per cent of its total land. This particular land comprises about 30 per cent of the country's total cultivable land but 63 per cent of it is badly affected by increasing level of salinity due to the greed of a good number of unscrupulous people.
Notably, man-made causes are more significant for this growing threat than natural calamity in the country's coastal districts. This salinity impacts have badly distracted the entire ecological balance in the region.
According to experts, effects of climatic change impacts like land erosion, rising levels of salinity in the soil and inland water sources, soil infertility, deforestation and disruption in biodiversity have been accelerated in Bangladeshi coastal regions more by human activities than nature.
Among many human-interventions with nature, industrialised shrimp farming has turned up as the worst 'act of greed' that is playing the most pro-active role in all these damaging aspects.
Supported by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Media Fellowship program on Coastal Concern, a field study was conducted over the impact of rising salinity level in Bangladeshi coast and the expansion of industrial shrimp cultivation as its cause.
The study has revealed how the impulsive practice has not only damaged the region's environmental elements but also the social and financial aspects of the local communities who entirely depend on them.
Over the past 20 years, shrimp cultivation in the country's coastal zone has gained rapid popularity, aided by government policies as well as international demands. According to export data revealed by the state-run Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh earned US$ 348 million during 2009-10 fiscal year which was $ 353 million in the previous year.
The Department of Fisheries (DoF), Bangladesh shows that about 250,000 hectares (ha) of land has good potential for coastal aquaculture in the country and of that about 180,000 ha is suitable for shrimp farming. Responding to international market demand, coastal shrimp farming increased from 20,000 ha in 1979-80 to 100,800 ha in 1988-89. This expansion reached 141,000 ha in 1998-99. Finally in 2005-06, the expansion unleashed its fury as the industrial shrimp farming covered about 217,000 ha, up by an alarming 10.5 times within 25 years.
The growth continues further, acquiring more agriculture lands thus compromising with the region's gross food production.
According to Bangladesh Soil Salinity Report -2009 prepared by Soil Research Development Institute (SRDI), out of the country's 1,689,831 ha cultivable coastal area, 833,450 ha were affected by salinity in the year 1973. After three decades in 2000 the salinity affected area was 1,020,750 ha, an increase of 187,300 ha (22.47 per cent). The latest survey in 2009 revealed that total 1,056,260 ha of coastal land has been affected by saline water, an increase of 35,510 ha in nine years. Since 1973 till 2009, salinity spread over 222,810 ha further inside the Bangladeshi coast.
Over this period (1973-2009) salinity has not only spread out further inside the coast but also has intensified its levels. According to SRDI's soil salinity report-2009, lands categorised as Level-5 (representing soil with very strongly saline with some strongly saline category) was 157,088 ha in 2000 which has increased to 198,486 ha just within nine years.
Similarly, land categorised as Level-4 (representing soil with strongly saline with some moderately saline category) was 198,890 ha in 2000. It was 198,014 ha in 2009. More Level-4 salinity soil turned into Level-5 category soil, meaning salinity is intensifying, experts explained.
According to General Manager of Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO) Dr A Enamul Haque, industrial shrimp cultivation is one of the prime reasons for this expanding saline area as well as its intensification over time.
"Extensive patterns of shrimp cultivation are achieved by expansion of area rather than by intensification," he said.
The rapid expansion of shrimp farms during the last decade, along with the adoption of extensive and improved farming techniques, has caused growing concern as to its adverse effects on the coastal environment and damage to the traditional agricultural systems have started to become visible, Dr Muhammad Jahangir Alam, Chief Scientific Officer of Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI) explained.
The coastal region, especially the south-western districts namely Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat, was chosen for the CSE study as the districts are the most promising areas for shrimp cultivation as well as the most vulnerable for its unrestrained farming nature.
The investigation under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship program on Coastal Concern in these three most affected areas has revealed the true picture of colossal damage that the export-oriented shrimp industry has brought upon.
As per district-wise salinity growth record, compiled by SRDI-Khulna office, total 25,210 ha of agricultural land has been infected by salinity intrusion within 1973 to 2000. Salinity of various levels was found in 120,040 ha of cultivable land in this area in 1973, expanded to 145,250 ha in 2000.
Similar to Khulna, total 107,980 ha of land was salinity affected in 1973 in the Bagerhat district that expanded to 125,130 ha in 2000. Within three decades, salinity intrusion grasped 17,150 ha of land, a 15.9 per cent growth.
Satkhira district has also suffered similar salinity intrusion into its cultivable lands. According to soil salinity record for this district, 146,350 ha of land was salinity affected in 1973 that increased to 147,080 ha in 2000.
And this unholy salinity intrusion has further intensified after 2000, mainly due to industrial shrimp cultivation with drained-in stranded saline water into cultivable lands, the country's top salinity experts commented.
For example, only in Khulna district, area under shrimp cultivation has expanded from around 55 acres in 1979 to about 4,550 acres in 2006, almost 90 times up in around 25 years. Similar expansions have also been recorded in the Sathkhira and Bagerhat districts during the last few decades.
It has been reported that farmers surrounding the shrimp farming areas are often forced to surrender their cultivable lands to the aggressive shrimp farm owners or groups, sometimes by force or out of desperation. It has also been noted during the study that most shrimp farms are either owned or backed by influential political leaders or groups.
"I have never thought of doing anything but farming in my inherited lands like my ancestors," Abdul Gafur, a rural farmer at the Tala sub-district under Shatkhira district told this correspondent.
"But shrimp farming has made me a labourer," he said explaining his ordeal in a nutshell.
Father of three young girls and two teenaged boys Gafur can be the mirror to the local community in the rapidly expanding shrimp farming areas. Gafur's ancestors depended on farming since the time he can remember. Food grain and supplements produced in his family inherited lands were almost sufficient to meet the need of the joint family - until a few years ago.
As Gafur recalls, local shrimp farm owners started rapid expansion of their farms not earlier than a decade, draining-in saline water into the agricultural lands through canals.
"Due to this long-stranded saline water next to our agricultural lands, crop production started to deteriorate as levels of salinity in our lands started to increase fast," he explained.
He said that over a few years production in their lands has declined so much that it hardly returns the cultivation cost at the end of the season.
It was out of desperation that he gave his land to the farming group on lease, as many others in the area, and joined the shrimp farming as contract-labourer. Initially, he received good returns from the farm but as the demand of shrimp declined in the market as a result of falling international demands and imposed restriction on its export to EU, returns from the shrimp farming started to shrink rapidly.
"Then we realised what damage we have done to ourselves and to our land," he said adding that shrimp farming over a few years in the stranded water has deserted his once fertile land forever.
"Not even a tree can grow now at the edge of my land. Layer of thick brownish salt-like clay surfaces every time it rains on my land," poor Gafur told the reporter.
"The land is dying," he said explaining that he has no option but to continue farming shrimp and intensifying intoxication.
According to the local agriculture office, Satkhira district was once an area of surplus rice production but now there is an inflow of rice from outside. Thus in a vast area, rice cultivation is gradually being replaced by shrimp farming. A number of traditional rice varieties (valuable genetic resources) suitable for the locality (eg gunshi, kalshi etc) are gradually disappearing.
Md Anwar Hossain, Principal Scientific Officer of Salinity Management and Research Centre (SMRC) said, "Salinity causes unfavourable environment and hydrological situations that restrict the normal crop production throughout the year."
According to him, level of salinity is related with the rise of pH level in soil, which means less fertility and dearth of nutrients in the soil to produce crops.
Soil reaction values (pH) in coastal regions range from 6.0 to 8.4 and it is increasing fast, he added.
According to a study conducted by Md Rezaul Karim, a working professor in the University of Khulna, revealed that production of rice per hectare declined from 3.5 mt in 1975 to little above 1.0 mt in 1999 at his study area due to increasing salinity level in the soil, mainly due to industrial shrimp farming in the area.
Mr Karim conducted his study on 43 villages of Rampal sub-district under the jurisdiction of Bagerhat district, close to the Sundarban. Salinity infected 79 percent land (25230 ha) of this particular sub-district's total 32088 ha cultivable lands.
Similarly, per hector fruits and vegetable in the study area also shown devastative decline, little above 2.5 mt in 1975 to 1.0 mt in 1999, the study revealed.
Salinity expert Anwar Hossain explains that crop diversification has been severely undermined in these saline affected areas. Production of non-rice crops, fodder for livestock, vegetables, etc can no longer be grown. Thus, there is an acute shortage of these crops in areas under shrimp farming and their prices have gone up significantly in recent years.
Due to the adverse effects of shrimp cultivation, people's earning from extra agricultural activities like vegetable production and rearing of domestic animals fell by 30 to 50 per cent. All kinds of trees, including fruit trees, have declined by 10 to 30 per cent due to increasing salinity. Consequently shrimp cultivation has forced many marginal farmers to abandon their homesteads and small croplands, and migrate to nearby towns or in the city's slums.
According to Mr Karim's study on Rampal sub-district, popular trees like mango trees declined from 3,302 in 1975 to 928 only in 1999. Similarly, the number of coconut trees has decreased from 10,525 to 3,953, bamboo from 7,682 to 1,598, areca-nut from 41,960 to 8,603 and banana from 19,733 to 3,687 trees only over 25 five years.
Approximately 8,750 hectares of mangrove have been lost to salt-water intrusion, dike and pond construction and human intervention, said forest conservation officer of Khulna range Topon Kumar Dey.
With the gradual deposition of silt due to water management practices under shrimp cultivation, the land elevation increases so that land is flooded only during monsoon. As a result the drainage system gradually changes increasing the retention of fresh water and altering the saline balance required for sustaining the mangrove forest, Mr Dey explained.
Doubtlessly, soil salinity is a worldwide problem. Bangladesh is no exception to it. It is to acknowledge that export-oriented shrimp farming has opened a new door to earn foreign currencies but it must be defined at what cost.
Ensuring the best use of natural advantages, shrimp farming should be encouraged in a method of conservation rather than exploitation. Otherwise, concerned government authority would be liable to ill-fated farmers like Gafur for their ordeal. It is high time to determine the extent of industrial shrimp farming in the coastal area. Finalisation of related laws, focusing mainly on the biodiversity conservation in this area, is earnestly required.
It is time to determine what to come first - shrimp for export or rice for food.
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