Floating farms are transforming life on India’s waterways

Photo: Women beneficiaries of Self-Help Group nurturing the summer crops in a float-farm in Amtoli village in the Sundarbans region of southern India and parts of Bangladesh (Courtesy of South Asian Forum for Environment)

Floating farms are transforming life on India’s waterways

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Date: 26th March 2024
Author: Adam Wentworth
Type: Feature
Countries: Asia, India, Bangladesh

In the Sundarbans, in the southern regions of India and Bangladesh, rising sea levels and extreme weather prompt inventive solutions like floating hydroponic farms. These farms offer resilience, market access and community empowerment, showcasing effective climate adaptation in action. This story is part of a series celebrating the locally-led solutions supported by the UNDP implemented - Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator programme.

This article first appeared on the Climate Home News website.

As the climate crisis unfolds, it is increasingly pushing people into desperate, but inventive directions. This fact is apparent in the Sundarban region of southern India and Bangladesh. It is a biodiverse landscape covering a vast area of swamp and mangrove. The region extends to 10,000 square kilometres where the Bay of Bengal meets the land and seeps inward through a network of winding rivers.

It is a place where people have spent generations living alongside water and the rhythm of the seasons. But the Sundarbans are now feeling the force of climate change as it faces regular extreme weather events and the devastating impacts of cyclones. The waters here are rising by an average of over 3 cm a year and storms have increased by 47% in the past decade.

Floating farms

The huge amounts of water coming off the bay during these cyclones deposit an equal amount of salt onto farmland and in groundwater, destroying crops and putting clean drinking supplies at risk. Increased extreme weather is forcing communities into greater conflict with natural wildlife – in an area with a sizeable population of tigers – and leading to greater urban migration. In response, communities are looking at new ways to protect their livelihood and the environment they depend on.

Conventional farming methods in the region are chemically intensive, harm nature and remain at the mercy of rising sea levels. One innovative project is instead seeking to work with the water, lifting farms onto floating platforms which support sustainability and restore community life.

A trial of floating farms is run by the South Asian nature Forum for Environment (SAFE), supported by the Adaptation Fund. Funded by the Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator (AFCIA), the initiative is part of the first round of AFCIA grants financed by the Fund and administered by the UN Development Programme. The project involves 12 local villages and 2,200 households, which in turn support thousands in the wider agrarian economy.

First piloted in India and Bangladesh, the initiative is being scaled up through AFCIA. The new farms use hydroponic technology, which avoids the damaging effects of regularly toiling soil. They can grow a variety of seasonal crops in grow bags, fed by solar power and a small irrigation unit which removes saltwater from the process. The unique structures are also designed to work alongside fish and crab farming and support the restoration of embankments in flooded areas.

Climate resilience

The farms are also more resilient to the extreme weather which is now hitting India and Bangladesh.

In the past two years, the Sundarbans have experienced two 'super-cyclones’, called Yaas and Amphan, which caused billions of dollars of damage. Despite this, the floating farms, due to having climate resilience built into their design, saw only an estimated 10% loss.

Ranjan Mandal, the head of Amtoli village council, said that: “After Amphan and Yaas, three quarters of the village was under saltwater. We had lost all hope but were provided for by SAFE’s innovative adaptation. It is unique that on a bamboo float raft, we can grow all vegetables for both self-consumption and sale, as well as saving the seeds for the next crop cycle. This is very much locally made and well-framed to survive the storms. Our farmers can make it (the floats) themselves and we can use it for multiple purposes.”

Self-Help Group members harvesting winter coriander leaves from the array of float-farms. Tipligheri houses 100 float-farms engaging nearly 120 women farmers (Courtesy of South Asian Forum for Environment)
Self-Help Group members harvesting winter coriander leaves from the array of float-farms. Tipligheri houses 100 float-farms engaging nearly 120 women farmers (Courtesy of South Asian Forum for Environment)

Community benefits

The project has been a revelation to the local community which has worked in participation with SAFE on its implementation. Bisakha Mondal, a farmer and leader of a local women’s self-help group, said the farms “look like one vast garden loaded with fresh vegetables”.

“Our group can collectively harvest all vegetables and fish in the seasonal cycles that we plan together. We have over 500 women in my village now trained in either float farming techniques or fish and crab farming.”

Another benefit from the scheme is market access for farmers. The farms allow crops to be rotated with wider market demands. SAFE trains farmers in maximising the benefits of their produce, including by being provided improved access to banking. Mondal adds that “this is the first time we went to town for training and got our own bank accounts”.

Deepali Auliya, a farmer in Tipligheri village, comments: “I can now grow both vegetables and fish in my own pond even in flood situations. I don’t have to leave my kids all alone and go to work. I can also spend my time on other activities like honey harvesting and taking care of my kids”.

Innovative farming

Regenerative farming, an approach aimed at farming with and revitalising nature such as restoring soil health, has the potential to transform areas which face a constant battle with the rising tides. But its focus on hydroponic technology means it can be used in areas experiencing drought or soil depletion.

It is clear this is vital in many parts of the world where climate disasters are becoming the norm, and where relying on the land and seasonal patterns is no longer possible.

“The Adaptation Fund, by its nature, has been financing innovative and often groundbreaking projects over the years, but with the rising climate urgency and adaptation gap we are seeing in developing countries, we need to focus more support to innovation in order to advance new ways to accelerate effective climate action,” said Mikko Ollikainen, Head of the Adaptation Fund.

“It is great to see effective and scalable results happening on the ground, and improving the lives of vulnerable communities in the Sundarbans,” added Saliha Dobardzic, senior climate change specialist who coordinates the Fund’s Innovation programme. “The floating farms project and others around the world are great examples of the Adaptation Fund’s innovation pillar in action.”

About this article

This story has been co-created under the framework of the UNDP-managed Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator (AFCIA).

The UNDP-AFCIA programme counts on financial contributions from the Adaptation Fund and the European Union and has awarded 44 micro and small grants to locally-led organisations across 33 countries worldwide, accelerating their innovative solutions to build resilience in the most vulnerable communities.  

UNDP-AFCIA, is one of the funding windows anchored under the Adaptation Innovation Marketplace (AIM), a multi-stakeholder strategic platform that promotes scaled-up adaptation at the local level, launched by UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner at the Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021.  

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