When climate adaptation goes wrong

Asadul Islam peers over the edge of a boardwalk on his pond in southwest Bangladesh and watches as hundreds of caged crabs float past beneath him. He is looking for those that have shed their hard shell. When he finds one he has a short window to freeze it and send it off for sale to westerners with a taste for soft-shelled crabs. He hopes this new business venture will provide the wealth that eluded his father.

For generations, Islam’s family farmed rice. But beginning in the 1980s, rising seas and storm surges began pushing saltwater through the banks of tidal rivers and ruining their crops. His father, along with millions of other coastal farmers, decided to flood the family’s rice paddies with brackish water and stock the briny ponds with black tiger prawn fry.

Backed by the Bangladeshi government, which saw shrimp and prawn production as a lucrative export opportunity, and development organizations that heralded the transition from paddy to pond as a clever climate-change adaptation, farmers flooded more than 275,000 hectares, mostly in the southwest, for intensive aquaculture.

The thinking went: if farmers couldn’t keep saline water from poisoning their rice fields, they could welcome it in and use it to grow something else. It was a way to adapt, and for a while it worked. Commercial shrimp, known as “white gold,” has become one of the country’s most valuable export commodities.

However, the tradeoff for a few years of income has been decades of environmental degradation and sometimes violent conflict that shows how some adaptations can end up making people more, not less, vulnerable.

“Shrimp aquaculture has been called a climate change adaptation strategy. Some development agencies say it’s the only option for areas already going under water,” says Kasia Paprocki, a geographer with the London School of Economics and the author of Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh. “But it contributes to many of the social and ecological problems it claims to avert.”

Bangladesh faces rising seas, intensifying cyclones, extensive flooding and extreme heat. And while the country struggles to protect itself from the effects of the climate crisis, its southwest region is reeling from the unintended consequences of a shrimp farming boom – a solution that became a problem.

Asadul Islam and a young helper search for molted crabs they are raising on an aquaculture farm in Gabura, Bangladesh. The soft-shell crabs are destined for foreign markets. Photo by Stephen Robert Miller.

Islam lives on Gabura, an island of about 40,000 people perched north of the Bay of Bengal and the dense Sundarbans mangrove forest. It’s a precarious place to call home. After Cyclone Amphan made landfall here in May 2020, parts of the island sat underwater for most of the next 18 months. 

Today, people are shoring up their mud houses, sealing their dinghies with fresh black tar and readying for the next cyclone season. Bangladesh’s government has committed about $108 million to fixing the island’s crumbling protective embankments. But even if the work is completed – and many locals doubt it will be – Gabura remains poisoned from within.

In the last three decades, more than two thirds of its farmable land has become a silver desert of saline shrimp ponds. These heavily fertilized lagoons quickly became breeding grounds for diseases like white-spot baculovirus, which attacks shrimps’ bodies and can destroy a crop within a week.

People crossing a flooded road after the landfall of Cyclone Amphan in 2020. Thousands of shrimp enclosures were also washed away. Photo by Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

To compensate for losses, farmers often overstock ponds, but the strategy is unsustainable. “The virus first attacked about 10 years ago,” Islam says. “We started with 500 shrimp, but then had to increase to 1,000, and then 3,000 in the same place because so many shrimp died.”

Side effects from intensive shrimping have incubated conflict in impoverished rural communities. Crop farmers complain that brackish water leaking from shrimp ponds poisons their fields. Environmentalists say that feed and fertilizers damage local biodiversity. The unemployed complain that raising shrimp requires a fraction of the labor required to grow rice, and the hungry watch as the land’s fertility is used to raise a product prioritized for export.

Even the drinking water has suffered – salt taints more than 50 percent of aquifers in coastal Bangladesh, and although cyclones and relentless tides deserve much of the blame, so does the proliferation of brackish aquaculture.

Only one well on Gabura plunges deep enough to bring up fresh water, so locals depend on six surface pools that collect rainwater for drinking, cleaning and bathing. According to a government study from 2019, three of those pools were used for aquaculture and just one provided safe drinking water.

The freshwater crisis has taken an outsize toll on women, intensifying existing gender inequalities. In areas with high salinity, women and adolescent girls travel an average of about four miles a day in search of drinking water for their families. 

Anyone hoping to address these issues must contend with the money that aquaculture brings to a country that is developing aggressively. In the year before the Covid pandemic severed global supply lines, Bangladesh exported 30,000 metric tons of shrimp worth nearly $350 million.

Shrimp at a Bangladesh processing plant. Photo by G. M. Masum Billah.

Since the 1980s, development agencies have pushed shrimp farming as a means of lifting coastal communities out of poverty, says Paprocki, despite the tensions it has created and findings that it has had little impact on poverty. Experts say the lion’s share of the revenue has been captured by industry middlemen and wealthy landowners with political ties. 

This “shrimp mafia,” as those who control the industry are often referred to locally, has used intimidation and, at times, violence to control the shrimp trade. One of the worst incidents, says Topon Gualdar, a rice and vegetable farmer in a village about 40 miles north of Gabura, happened in 1990 when a wealthy businessman brought an armed gang to forcibly cut an embankment so the land could be flooded and seized for shrimp ponds.

“We protested hard,” Gualdar says. “We did not want to destroy our trees, land, water, our livelihoods.” During the standoff the gang killed a woman, but Gualdar and the others held their ground, and the village’s fields are still lush with rice paddies and vegetable gardens.

Similar uprisings have occurred elsewhere. But on Gabura, where holes and pipes that suck brackish water through the embankments weakened the island’s fortifications before Cyclone Amphan, locals say action to defend the land is unlikely. 

A Water Development Board engineer said that when the embankment is rebuilt, shrimp farming in Gabura will be limited to a designated area to avoid conflict. However, investigations by Transparency International Bangladesh, an anti-corruption organization, found that Water Board officials and local politicians often resolve embankment-cutting cases in favor of shrimp farmers. “As a result, such illegal cutting is still ongoing,” a 2020 report from the organization found.

Bangladesh is racing to stay ahead of rising waters and needs money to protect its people – $3 billion to $8 billion by 2030 for adaptation measures, according to some estimates. In this environment, industries that generate significant economic activity take on a shine, even if their problems are well documented. 

There are alternatives – less-intensive methods of raising shrimp, co-operative ownership models that protect community values – but the priority given to intensive shrimp aquaculture leaves little room for local imaginings of how the region might otherwise adapt to climate change, Paprocki says.

On Gabura, Islam hopes his investment in soft-shell crab will pay off better than his father’s gamble on shrimp, but there’s no way to be sure. He learned the business from a Japanese frozen seafood company that was seeking producers. It seemed like a smart move: crabs fetch a higher price than shrimp, and he was told they were less vulnerable to disease.

Barring any more global shutdowns, trade disruptions or environmental disasters, he says he is optimistic about the future, although business is off to a rough start. This winter’s cold temperatures killed 1,200 of his 2,000 crabs. He will stay up late tending to the survivors and will sell what he can in the morning.

Riton Camille Quiah contributed Bangla to English translation.

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