Haseeb Md Irfanullah

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Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He used to lead the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk

Recommended reading: http://www.iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/asia/asia_where_work/bangladesh/

Posts by Haseeb Md

  • Sandbar cropping to eradicate extreme poverty in Bangladesh

    February 2nd, 2016

    Every year in monsoon, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and their hundreds of branches carry enormous amounts of water and silt and flood at least a quarter of Bangladesh. The scenario is very different in winter. As the water reduces in the main river channels, thousands of hectares of sandbars (sand-covered silty riverbeds) surface.

    Sandbar cropping is an innovation, tested and scaled up in northern Bangladesh by Practical Action over the last decade, making these uncultivable lands arable.

    A life changing nature-based innovation

    In this agro-technology, numerous pits a couple of feet deep are excavated on sandbars reaching down to the silt layer to sow pumpkin seeds. After a few weeks’ nurturing, green plants come out of these pits and spread over the sand. Over the next few months, flowers bloom, fertilized ones turn into green fruits, which ripen into orange pumpkins.

    pumpkins gaibandhaThis fascinating innovation transforms the silver sandbar first into a green then into an orange landscape.

    This visual metamorphosis of ‘sandscape’ has effectively been used through a series of initiatives over the past 10 years transforming the lives of 15,000  extreme poor families, who were without any land or productive assets, often lived on embankments, earned only a couple of dollars a day, and lacked most basic services.

    The fantastic positive impacts of sandbar cropping on the ultra-poor have been achieved by overcoming many social, environmental, technological and systems challenges.

    Sandbar access

    Existing laws of Bangladesh put sandbars, which are dried up riverbeds and temporary in nature, under the ownership of the government as unsettled land. But the ground scenario is different; most of the sandbars are claimed by local people.

    Although left unused, getting consent from the land claimants for sandbar cultivation by the landless people can be very difficult, especially when there are multiple claimants. After negotiating in presence of local governments, administrations and NGOs, a sandbar can be accessed by an extreme poor family for free or in exchange for cash or by sharing a part of the production.

    Access in exchange of harvest has a downside. Some extreme poor farmers hide their hard-earned pumpkins by harvesting them green. This causes crop damage during storage, leading to lower prices and reduced production.

    A fantastic production of pumpkin not only upholds the success of the sandbar cropping technique, but also increases the value of the sandbar. Seeing the production, some land claimants who initially gave free access began to demand a share in the middle of the season. In other cases, the land claimants increased the percentage of the share the following year. In severe cases, no access was given to the extreme poor as the owner decided to practice sandbar cropping himself. All these indicate a ‘success backlash’ to this nature-based venture.

    Access to land is further constrained by uncertain geomorphology of the rivers. In the upstream of a river, sandbars are temporary. Their extent and characteristics, like position in the river and depth of sand layer, vary significantly from one year to another. If a piece of land appears without a sand layer, it is leased out for cash crops, like tobacco, maize, potato, chilli, onion and garlic. Such uncertainties make long-term land-tenure arrangement for sandbar cropping impossible. Every year, new negotiations have to be opened up for access to new sandbar or to fix the percentage of share cropping.

    To minimize land access challenges, it is important that the local administration and local government formally facilitate the extreme poor’s ‘operational access’ to sandbars, since such a natural-resource-based, innovative cropping system can directly contribute to extreme poverty eradication − the core of the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Environmental factors

    Another challenge of sandbar cropping is the dependency on seasons. The starting of sandbar cultivation depends upon the first exposure of sandbars in autumn (October−early November). Late availability of sandbar delays the whole cultivation process. It may lower pumpkin seed germination rate due to severe winter/cold wave. Sand storm may cover young plants causing stunted growth. Sudden rainfall in March can cause crack on mature fruits just before harvest due to lack of micronutrients, like boron, in the soil. Early flooding in late March−early April may also push for early harvest of crops before they mature properly. All these reduce the overall pumpkin production.

    Timely availability of seeds, compost, fertilizers, micronutrients and irrigation has therefore been a basic prerequisite of the success of sandbar cropping. Such need has been met by building farmers’ capacity, establishing effective market linkages, and making financial resources available.

    Human capacity and economic aspects

    Sowing of pumpkin seed in the sandbar pits usually takes place in mid November and the first harvest of green pumpkins occurs in the late February. It is difficult for extreme poor to cope with this three-month lean period as they need to give time to sandbar cropping in lieu of their regular work.

    Sandbar cropping is also labour intensive for a significantly long period. Ability of individual farmer is thus a major factor. It is very difficult to work (e.g. for irrigation, artificial cross-pollination, and pest control) in February−March under strong heat. Ripening fruits also need 24-hour guarding from theft. All these may cause loss of regular daily wages affecting household income. Further, women and adolescents of the family also need to get involved in sandbar cropping, particularly when the male family members migrate the area at the beginning (October−November) or end of the sandbar cropping season (March−April) to work in winter rice fields.

    Cultivating some quick-harvesting crops, like squash, on sandbars has been found to be very useful to cover the lean period by earning money within a couple of months. Further, linking the extreme poor families with other government initiatives, like social safety net programmes, could be useful to partially compensate income loss during sandbar cropping season.

    Managing and marketing the harvest

    pumpkin storagePumpkin, the major sandbar crop, has a long shelf-life. If ripe pumpkins can be stored for a few months, a good price can be expected in the monsoon season. As they mostly have small houses, however, extremely poor farmers cannot store their whole harvest.

    Practical Action helped to install simple, low-cost bamboo shelves within farmers’ houses which helps them store much of their produce for several months. Creating a community storage facility has also been considered, but the farmers have expressed unwillingness to keep their produce somewhere distant.

    Finally, given a huge pumpkin production in a small area, selling them with a reasonable understanding of the market system is a major challenge. The extreme poor have a limited understanding of market mechanisms as they work in the agriculture sector as day-labourers. When they produce crops, usually they produce for themselves, not in bulk for formal markets. Limited access to markets and market information, and over-saturation of pumpkin market may lead to low prices.

    Capacity development of farmers on market systems and value chains, organizing them into formal producers’ associations, facilitating their access to microfinance, and connecting them with big buyers and markets in the region and beyond have therefore been important aspects of sandbar cropping projects in Bangladesh.

    A stepping stone

    Sandbar cropping has effectively shown its potential and strengths to help the extreme poor. In the long journey of promoting this technology, development organizations and their partners have been crucial initiators, facilitators, advocates and catalysts. But the question remains, whether sandbar cultivation alone is robust enough to push ultra-poor families out of extreme poverty.

    Given the uncertainty around the availability of sandbars every year, the low bargaining power of the extreme poor to access sandbars, labour intensiveness, initial and recurring costs, complex market mechanisms, and environmental risks, sandbar cropping may not be practiced by an extreme poor family as the sole livelihood choice year after year.

    sandbar cropping

    A mechanism needs to be built in the sandbar cropping promotion, whereby the income from this practice can be efficiently invested in livelihoods diversification and asset creation (see figure above), creating a staircase to get out of extreme poverty. Sandbar cropping is thus an effective ‘stepping stone’ to bring the riverine extreme poor out of poverty.

    Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He used to lead the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

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  • Happy Floating Gardening!

    January 5th, 2016

    The year 2015 ended well for floating-garden-enthusiasts!

    On 15 December, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared floating gardening of Bangladesh as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). This agricultural system has now become one of the 36 systems around the globe, and the first from Bangladesh. A GIAHS is essentially an outstanding land use system or a landscape that has been evolving with a community meeting their needs and desire for sustainable development.

    Floating gardening is a traditional agricultural practice in the southern part of Bangladesh. In this farming system, rafts are made on stagnant waters with aquatic plants, mainly water hyacinth. On these platforms, crop seedlings are raised, and vegetables, spices and other crops are cultivated during monsoon. In winter, when water recedes from the wetlands, these rafts are dismantled and mixed with soil as compost to grow winter crops.

    gathering produce from a floating garden 21778

    In addition to supporting food and nutrition to rural Bangladeshis, this indigenous technology is a good tool for disaster management and climate change adaptation in the wetlands. Floating farming has also been an useful income generation option for wetland dwellers, thus their poverty alleviation, by managing aquatic resources.

    Over the past few years, floating gardening has received much global attention, specifically as a means of adaptation to climate change. It has now found its place in the latest authoritative Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Practical Action’s work on floating gardening in Bangladesh is showcased by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a farmer-led sustainable agricultural adaptation technology.

    FAO’s latest recognition is a step forward to appreciate the contribution and opportunity of this indigenous technology to mitigating some basic global challenges, like food insecurity, extreme poverty and climate change. Such global appreciation is indeed a result of long-term efforts by many organizations, like, Practical Action, IUCN, CARE and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), to name a few.

    It is interesting to note that Bangladesh’s centuries-old floating gardening technology had never left its ‘centre of origin’ − a small area of about 25 sq km − until NGOs started promoting it in the late 1990s. This is particularly fascinating since about 50% of Bangladesh’s 147,570 sq km is basically wetlands.

    The recent robust promotion of floating gardening is an excellent example of how an indigenous technology can transform  poor people’s lives as an innovation − in new areas, to meet new challenges. There, however, has not been any assessment per se to check if floating gardening is really a sustainable option under changing climate. Such testing is very logical as the growth and survival of water hyacinth is very much dependent on amount of rainfall, length of flooding period, and salinity of water − all to be affected by climate change.

    The need for research on floating gardening has repeatedly been raised in recent years. But very limited studies on floating agriculture, however, do not match the overwhelming interest in and increasing recognition of this technology.

    It may be argued that floating agricultural practice has reached its pinnacle in Bangladesh by being in practice over centuries. But ever-changing climate and hydrology, people’s economic conditions and aspirations, and our development approaches have been continuously changing the face of floating gardening in newly introduced areas. To cope with these changes and uncertainties, promotion of floating gardening should be backed by organized innovation, planned research, and effective knowledge management.

    As we start 2016, floating gardening gives us a fantastic opportunity to go about nature-based solutions to basic development challenges − extreme poverty, food insecurity, climate change − duly supported by evidence, not only by emotion.

    Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He is the former disaster risk reduction and climate change programme lead of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk

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  • ‘Community-Based Adaptation’ and ‘Technology Justice’

    November 24th, 2014

    Adaptation helps species to survive and evolve. Just imagine a polar bear strolling on a floating ice sheet or a humming bird sipping nectar from a flower while hovering or a dormant desert plant waiting for one quick shower to complete its life-cycle. After getting quite significantly evolved over the last couple of million years, human’s adaptation continues: to bad traffic, to economic meltdown or to changing climate!

    Artificial aquifer tubewell, Shyamnagar

    Artificial aquifer tubewell, Shyamnagar

    Climate change challenges our effort to sustain and develop. So we can say adaptation to climate change basically comprises measures or actions that “keep development ‘on-track’”. If it is so, then what is community-based adaptation? Let me try to explain it by reflecting on four issues.

    First, who are the actors? Is community-based adaptation made up of actions taken ‘only’ by a vulnerable community, without any outside help? Or actions ‘for’ a vulnerable community, but by the outsiders? Or measures taken ‘with’ the vulnerable community? I believe all three are correct depending on the situations. I explain this in the next points.

    Second, community-based adaptation also has space and time dimensions. It basically argues that, under changing climate, a specific location is facing and will face specific problems – causing vulnerability of its people. So, it needs specific solutions with those people to build their resilience. And, these actions are not only for now, but also for the future.

    Third, community-based adaptation is about direction as well – top-down or bottom-up. While strategies, policies and programmes for adaptation are mostly top-down, community-based adaptation is essentially bottom-up in nature. But, top-down elements are also needed. For example, for channeling resources, technology transfer, sophisticated  information (e.g. on weather or on flood), or understanding the long-term impacts of the adaptation actions.

    The fourth issue is perception. Different people perceive community-based adaptation differently. Some may say it is a celebration of vulnerable communities’ experience. Others may call it a demonstration of community empowerment. Some may still see it an opportunity to showcase a mix of traditional/local and modern knowledge. Nevertheless, ‘community-based adaptation’ is a relatively new concept. Some may call it an approach. (I, however, find philosophy in it.) Whatever you call it, it is still evolving, so are its definition and image before us. Community-based adaptation cannot be found in the first four IPCC assessment reports. It has, however, made very strong presence in the 5th IPCC Assessment Report (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) published earlier this year.

    But, how can simple, low-cost technological innovations help community-based adaptation? To answer this question, I will give you three examples from Bangladesh that I followed closely.

    Salt tolerant rice cultivation (BINA 8) in Atulia union Shyamnagar Satkhira by Md  Asadujjaman Practical ActionResearches of Bangladesh in recent years have invented several rice and other crop varieties that survive up to certain salinity levels. It is therefore important to keep the salinity of irrigation water as low as possible to maintain soil salinity tolerable. In a recently tried model on the coast, monsoon rain is caught in small ponds to irrigate nearby rice fields in the winter. The pond owners not only get benefited from the rice farmers for their service, but also from farming low-salinity-tolerant fish almost all-the-year-round.

    On the saline coast, several options already exist to tackle sever drinking water problem, such as, rain-water harvesting, Pond-Sand Filter, piped supply of uncontaminated groundwater, and conserved rain-fed ponds. But, in the last option, over-harvesting causes severe pollution of these ponds. Innovative ‘artificial aquifer tube-wells’ installed by contaminated ponds help villagers to get clean drinking water, especially in winter months.

    My final example comes with sea-going boats. Due to climate variability, sea now gets rough more frequently than before. As a result, bottom planks of wooden fishing boats weaken quickly as they hit submerged sand dunes more frequently than before. Simple, low-cost modifications in the existing boat design, like steel frames, reinforce the boats and save lives of the fishermen from drowning.

    These examples highlight the characteristics of community-based adaptation I indicated above: the actors, space specificity, time dimension, process direction, and the perception. Although innovation helps community-based adaptation, it is a never ending process. It is needed for new areas, at new times, to face new challenges. Floating gardening, a traditional agricultural practice of Bangladesh, offers a good example to explain this.

    There are issues beyond technological innovation. Governance structure needs to be adaptive to changing situation. The existing ‘Union/Upazila Disaster Management Committees’ of Bangladesh, for example, may need to be transformed into ‘Union/Upazila Disaster Risk Reduction-Climate Change Adaptation Committees’ to handle new actions under the climate change regime. Prevailing concepts and approaches need to respond to changes too. Resilience, for instance, has been emerging in a big way demanding integration of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Financial mechanism needs to be adaptive as well for, for example, channeling national funds to the local level. Similar changes are needed in the monitoring and evaluation system to follow and measure adaptation actions.

    Community-based adaptation and technology − do they have anything to do with ‘justice’? A new concept called ‘Technology Justice’ is slowly emerging as a rallying cry. Technology justice can be defined as the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

    If we analyse the key elements of ‘community-based adaptation’ and ‘technology justice’, we can find a few commonalities. Both put people in the centre, focus on technology, allow people to make own choice, give them freedom to have a safe life, appreciate collective strength of people, and consider both the present & the future. These connections can help these philosophies – ‘community-based adaptation’ and ‘technology justice’ − to help each other and to help the poor communities vulnerable to climate change.

    Adaptation appears to be adjusting to a ‘challenge’. A challenge may come from ourselves or outside, but is generally considered negative. But, does climate change as a challenge have anything positive to offer? I believe it has. It gives us the opportunity to improvise, to innovate and to maximize our collective efforts, not only to survive, but also to evolve as a better species.

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  • A tale of tradition, technology & tobacco

    May 23rd, 2014

    Ethnic communities living in remote areas are not only geographically isolated, they are technologically isolated too – that’s what I thought while going to the hilly part of Bangladesh lately. And I was wrong!

    IMG_1600I was visiting Bolipara – a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southern Bangladesh, a region famous for its hills, rivers and forests. With 13 ethnic groups, cultural diversity is also an attraction.

    While talking with the Khumi, the Tripura and the Marma ethnic communities separately, I asked them to tell me three things that they were happy to have. Water points, treatment from local traditional healers, and schools were mentioned by more than one group. These were logical choices given the water, health and literacy related challenges they often face even at the end of the MDG-era. To my surprise, the other two things made them happy were mobile phone and solar home system.

    I calculated that there was roughly one mobile phone for 12-16 people in Bolipara. Maintaining a mobile phone in Bolipara is, however, a big challenge. To top-up your credit, you may have to walk up to 9 km to the nearest market. Since there is no electricity supply from the national grid, you also need a solar system in your house or at least in your village to charge your phone. Although mobile phones are cheap (as low as $30), solar home systems are not (minimum price $350). So, solar panels on the thatched roofs of quite a few traditional houses made me happy.

    In this age of ICT and renewable energy, I was very pleased to see ethnic people of the CHT were no longer technologically isolated and were improving their lives with advanced technologies. This is what Technology Justice is all about!

    (A quick note: Technology Justice can be defined as the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.)

    IMG_1601But, by living in one of the poorest areas of the country, how are the people of Bolipara  paying for solar home systems? In fact, unprecedented blanket cultivation of tobacco in this formerly forested area is allowing them to earn quick, good cash from large companies. Tobacco may be destroying the local environment and traditional agro-systems; it is also supporting good investment in technologies to make traditional life comfortable.

    This recent technological transformation of Bolipara represents a complex interaction among culture, poverty, private sector, environment and technology. Development is about making balanced choices. When the gap between the haves and the have nots is vast, it is often hard to advise the poor what they should do and shouldn’t do to make their lives better. Fighting technology injustice is tough, but achieving technology justice is probably tougher.

    Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at haseeb.irfanullah@practicalaction.org.bd

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  • ‘Humanitarian technology’ and ‘Technology justice’

    Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dhaka
    October 24th, 2013

    Sunday the 13 October was the International Day for Disaster Reduction 2013. Later that week on Thursday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched its World Disasters Report 2013.

    Between these two dates, Asia had a very busy week! Cyclone Phailin devastated the east coast of India (on the 12th), 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook the central Philippines (on the 15th), while Typhoon Wipha hit south-east of Japan (on the 16th).

    The latest World Disasters Report explores the roles and impacts of technological innovations on humanitarian actions. Needless to say, ‘humanitarian technologies’ not only help in disaster response, but also in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, recovery and rebuilding efforts. Evacuation of nearly 1 million people from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh (India) before 220-km/h Phailin hit is the recent-most example of saving lives through disseminating early warnings and guiding people to safer places.

    IFRC’s new report puts information and communication technology (ICT) at the heart of humanitarian technologies. It draws examples from recent major disasters − from Haiti to Bangladesh − where digital technologies effectively helped humanitarian responses. Successful management of recent calamities in India, the Philippines or Japan may make the similar list in the future.

    When Henry Dunant established the International Committee of the Red Cross 150 years back, medical services without antibiotics or anesthesia and trained volunteers were the cutting-edge technologies in humanitarian actions. Although the IFRC took a technology-equals-ICT approach, its 283-page-long report shows that – by using text messages or satellite imagery or social media − we have come a long way since.

    Bangladesh 2013, mother and child by garden, Sirajgong

    House in Bangladesh built on a raised platform for flood protection

    In this progressively digitized world, there remain other dimensions and perceptions of disaster-related vulnerabilities and technological solutions. Raising homestead plinth above the ‘last highest flood level’ still remains a crucial technology for a poor family living in the middle of a floodplain. Increasing uncertainty in timing and amount of rainfall in the recent years is making traditional flood preparedness techniques less effective.

    IFRC’s latest report admits that discussions on technology in the humanitarian arena apparently do not contain accountability, transparency and efficiency − the key aspects of existing humanitarian governance. This absence is considered as one of the major limitations of humanitarian technologies. This may also make some humanitarian actors and disaster-affected communities being cynic about using new technologies in disaster situation.

    This interaction among people, technologies and systems can also be seen from a ‘technology justice’ point of view. ‘Technology justice’ is the right of people to decide, to choose and to use technologies that help them to lead the life they value, but without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

    Innovation and promotion of humanitarian technologies, therefore, always need to put people in the centre. There should also be a mechanism to receive feedback from the technology users. The technology development system, often led by non-humanitarian actors, should be responsive to these feedbacks to improve the technologies, thus the humanitarian efforts.

    The latest IFRC’s World Disasters Report proposes an innovation-evaluation-diffusion cycle for deploying humanitarian technologies. The problems and contexts related to hazards give us the opportunity for technological innovations. But, before going for wider adoption and scaling up, evaluation of these innovations is an important step to pass through. This is expected to minimize the technological risks; and possible tension between traditional humanitarians and ‘tech-savvy’, new humanitarians.

    With increasing dominance of technologies in our lives, I echo Kristin Sandvik of the PRIO, are we ready to redefine humanitarian actions and the humanitarians?

    Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at haseeb.irfanullah@practicalaction.org.bd

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