Rita’s sunflowers offer hope as communities adapt to climate change in Bangladesh

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This World Environment Day, discover how families in Bangladesh’s coastal communities are cultivating livelihoods that are more resistant to the effects of climate change.

In a list of countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Bangladesh is ranked sixth in the world – and the most affected by extreme weather. Climate change has made natural disasters such as cyclones, storm surges, and flooding more frequent and intense in the country.

Coastal communities are particularly suffering amid increasing salinity intrusion, in which saltwater moves inland into sources of fresh water. In the last 35 years, salinity in has increased to 26% of the country – and it’s having a devastating effect on lives and livelihoods.

Struggling to access water for drinking and irrigating crops, and losing agricultural and grazing land to the saltwater, local people desperately need support.

Among them is Rita, 38. She lives with her family in Koyra union, on the edge of the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to unique mangrove forests which are themselves suffering salinity intrusion.

Lives and livelihoods threatened by saltwater

Salinity intrusion is adding to suffering in Koyra, with the area also prone to droughts, floods, riverbank erosion, and too much rain. Its communities were hit hard by cyclone Aila, cyclone Sidr, and cyclone Bulbul in 2019 and more recently cyclone Amphan. They faced loss of lives and property, with many becoming homeless and food shortages and outbreaks of disease adding to their suffering.

The rising saltwater levels mean they’re struggling to rebuild their largely agricultural livelihoods.

With her husband sick, Rita, 38, has been the primary breadwinner for her family, which includes two children and her mother-in-law. But she was unable to earn enough to make ends meet, and the family were living in extreme poverty.

Then Rita joined a new project being run by Islamic Relief to help poor families nurture livelihoods that are resilient to the changing climate.

She received training to set up a sunflower plot, one of numerous skills we provided for local people. Others included homestead gardening, bag and vertical gardening by drip irrigation, hydroponic grass cultivation, integrated farm management, and climate friendly nurseries.

Rita also learned about stress-tolerant varieties of agricultural crops, which will help the mother-of-two and her community adapt to the new climatic conditions.

With BDT 12,000 (about £113) to get her started cultivating vegetables and rearing sheep, Rita also began growing sunflowers, which need very little water and produce seeds which are much in demand as a food staple. She used most of the land she borrowed from a neighbor to cultivate sunflowers and the rest for potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and pumpkins.

“This is the first ever crop we have harvested since Cyclone Aila,” says Rita. “We have produced good crops and expect to sell at a good price.”

The determined mother uses organic fertiliser and the skills she learned from Islamic Relief to grow livestock fodder. She’s also begun fish farming and rearing poultry.

Gradually, her hard work is improving the lives of her family members. Her two children go to school and her husband is receiving healthcare, while Rita is flourishing with newfound self-confidence and is helping others in her community.

Rita has teamed up with other local entrepreneurs in a self-help group. She regularly saves money to the group savings account, and is showing others how to cultivate sunflowers for themselves.

Across the globe, poor communities are the hardest hit by the climate emergency. Islamic Relief is a lifeline for many. Support our work this World Environment Day and beyond: donate now.