Harvesting nutrition on the banks of the Brahmaputra River

Life along the banks of the Brahmaputra River

It is late afternoon on the banks of the Brahmaputra River and the heat of the day is finally subsiding. As the sun slowly begins to sink towards the horizon, the light turns golden and farmers, who have been outside working in the hot sun all day long, breath a tiny sigh of relief as the heat dissipates just a little.

The sandy banks of the Brahmaputra River provide a home to many in northern Bangladesh. In a country where the population is rising rapidly and where land is scarce, the river provides a home to many communities. Mostly small holder farmers, these communities live and work along the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River which provides both a lifeline and a hazard to those that live beside it. Traversing through China, India and Bangladesh this immense river system defines daily life for these communities.

An estimated 6.5 million people, or around 4% of the Bangladeshi population call the char land (river islands formed from sedimentation) home and are some of the most marginalized in Bangladesh. In a country where poverty is a daily reality for many, these farming families are some of the most vulnerable. They not only face major risks such as flooding, erosion and loss of land but are often marginalized from the benefits of mainland Bangladesh such as access to roads, schools, health services and farmland.

Harvesting nutrition

With the coolness of the late afternoon comes a renewed flutter of activity as local farmers finish up their work in the fields and start the journey home. Chickens and cows, prized possessions in the community, dig at the sand nearby as they huddle under the shade provided by the few trees with foliage that grow in the sandy soil.

The banks of the river are currently dotted with green and orange. Farmers along this stretch of land are harvesting a relatively new crop to the area – orange fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP). The farmers are crouched low to the ground and use their hands and a small pick to gently ease the sweetpotato from the sandy soil. The root slips out quite easily as the sand is lose– but this is still hot and backbreaking work for these farmers.

Once harvested, the roots are cleaned, sorted, weighed and packed into large bags for transportation. The OFSP vines are collected and transported to local farms for use in cooking and as animal fodder. Young men transport the vines atop their heads which are so completely covered that only one eye can be seen peeking out from amongst the green.

Life in the chars is both hazardous and insecure. Many char dwellers struggle to produce or buy enough food to eat and malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are common in these areas. And so it is with these communities in mind that the International Potato Center (CIP) along with local partners such as Bangladeshi Agriculture Research Institute (BARI) and BRAC are introducing orange fleshed sweetpotato as a resilient and nutritious food crop. Living in one of the most extreme environments in the world, these farmers live with the daily threat of flood, erosion and drought and so providing access to a crop which could provide both economic opportunities and nutritional benefits is a potential game changer for some of these farmers.

Around 51 hectares (or 378 bighas which is the traditional unit of measurement of area of land) owned by 2,500 local farmers who had been affected by natural disasters such as flood and river erosion were introduced to OFSP through a DFID funded project called Scaling up Sweetpotato through Agricultural and Nutrition (SUSTAIN). Led by CIP, the project has ushered in new hope for a group of farmers from Fulchhari and Sadar upazilas (a sub-district) where the crop is proving to do well.

The farmers were provided with quality planting material of OFSP varieties which had been officially released in Bangladesh by BARI with technical support from CIP. The vines were provided free of charge and farmers received technical information, training and ongoing support to ensure they were able to plant and care for the crop as required.

CIP is working to enhance agricultural sustainability in several regions of Bangladesh which are highly susceptive to climate change related external shocks that are both slow in onset, like salinity intrusion, drought episodes, soil quality degradation and biodiversity loss, and rapid in onset, such as tropical storms and floods. Growing vulnerability in these regions requires innovative and scalable approaches for sustainable intensification with OFSP a potentially robust relay crop. CIP is also evaluating the system effects of such changes in mixed-cropping and cereal based systems, for example, on overall soil fertility and yield effects on other crops.

Cultivating orange fleshed sweetpotato in the char areas of northern Bangladesh has a comparative advantage. It is challenging to grow rice, maize or wheat in the chars due to sandy and fallow land and scarcity of water (especially for rice). Farmer’s yield of OFSP in the char area is on average about 22 tons/hectares and requires significantly less irrigation and other inputs than many other crops.

A dynamic, shifting land

The river channels can be clearly seen during the dry season and the land bares the marks of the constant flow and pressure of water and wind. This is a dynamic land, constantly shifting and changing, bringing both life and hardship to the communities which call it home.

From the fields of orange fleshed sweetpotato which are growing along the banks of the river you look out across the dry river bed towards the small island communities which, during the dry season, are accessible by foot. Women travel in small groups as they traverse this distance with bags of harvested crops atop their heads, men lead small groups of animals to and from food and water and children run amongst this as they help their parents and play games with each other in the afternoon light.

The boundary where the river bank meets the start of the village is marked by a tall pole. With the river completely dry at the moment the pole is bare and sticks out from the dry sand and without it you would barely know that you were walking inside the channels of a river. But just a few weeks of rain and a change in climate and this land could be all but submerged and the river channels filled with water. With the rain, the channels would fill taking with it the fertile land which is currently being used for farming – gone for another season until the dry, hot months return and this land can once again be used to grow food and harvest nutrition for those that call it home.

In Bangladesh, the International Potato Center is currently implementing the SUSTAIN project which is a 5-year partnership (2013-2018), coordinated by CIP and financed by the UK Department for International Development, to scale up the nutrition benefits of bio-fortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) in Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and Rwanda and the spillover countries of Zambia and Tanzania. The goal is to reach 1.2 million households with under-5 year old children. SUSTAIN supports integrated interventions in agriculture, nutrition, utilization, and marketing to strengthen production and consumption of OFSP. SUSTAIN emphasizes rigorous measurement and evaluation in order to assess the scalability of these interventions and contribute to global evidence on achieving large scale nutrition outcomes through bio-fortified crops.

CIPs Bangladesh projects are building on continued progress in sub-Saharan Africa where the International Potato Center (CIP) has been working to bring the nutritional benefits of OFSP to nearly 2 million households in countries across sub-Saharan Africa affected by vitamin A deficiency. Over many years of working on OFSP, CIP has demonstrated that rigorous research in agriculture and health sciences can be combined to create solutions for global nutrition challenges and that these can be scaled up to reach millions of vulnerable families.