Safeguarding Bangladesh's "White Gold" and Protecting Livelihoods as the Climate Changes
When Debjani Sardar’s husband passed away, she had two daughters to raise, a home to maintain and a family-owned business to run, selling supplies to local shrimp and prawn producers in Khulna, Bangladesh. Her late husband had handled the shop before he passed, and she was determined not to lose it, too. Sardar soon learned, however, that extreme weather caused by climate change — including unpredictable monsoons, cyclones, changes in water salinity, prolonged drought, and related problems — was hurting her business. She watched as her income from selling aquaculture inputs to farmers prospecting for “white gold,” as Bangladesh’s valuable shrimp and prawn fisheries are known, slowly dwindled.
Sardar wondered how other traders in the business were managing. She soon heard about the Safe Aqua Farming for Economic and Trade Improvement project, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded activity implemented by Winrock International that began in 2016. The project team was collaborating closely with Bangladesh’s Department of Fisheries and its Fisheries Research Institute to develop environmentally friendly prawn and shrimp farming methodologies and sustainable aquaculture practices and providing training on how to use high-quality inputs and new technologies.
Sardar decided to participate in the trainings, becoming one of about 25,000 shrimp and prawn farmers, traders and inputs suppliers engaged by the project over its six-year lifespan. She adapted her enterprise and product lines to respond to the changing needs of her customers, and soon began to leverage both increased trade and confidence.
Sardar has since become both a business and community leader. She now relays information gleaned from SAFETI to her fellow traders and farmers to boost harvests. Other training participants, like Jhorna Mondol, have also translated their knowledge into better business returns and are helping to amplify and share information about sustainable, climate-friendly best practices in the sector. In the process, they gain recognition. Mondol was honored as Best Woman Farmer during Bangladesh’s 2018 National Fish Week. She received the award from Narayan Chandra Chanda, who was Bangladesh’s Minister of Fisheries and Livestock at the time.
“SAFETI has brought positive changes in our lives,” Mondol said. “We will not only continue the farming steps that we have learned from the project but also encourage others to follow these. We need to help each other to grow. The project taught us to dream big and work towards our dreams. If other shrimp farmers get the knowledge, no one will ever need to live uncertain of their livelihood.”
Other stories of impact and change are captured in a publication compiled by SAFETI. Through personal narrative and evocative photography, the book captures some of the reflections, challenges and successes of traders, farmers and suppliers like Sardar, Mondol, Abdul Awal Milon and others who engaged and introduced transformative approaches to production and trade. The Stream of Happiness: 10 Success Stories of Shrimp and Prawn Farmers showcases sustainable practices and individual and collective successes, helping to promote SAFETI’s widely adopted methodologies and its now well-known Six Steps to Success system, which is helping producers to adapt and thrive despite the climate and other challenges.
Bangladesh, a densely populated, low-lying, riverine country with around 400 miles of coastline on the Bay of Bengal, currently ranks as the seventh-most vulnerable country regarding climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The nation, however, is taking steps to adapt and mitigate the effects, which are incredibly important in a country where two-thirds of the land is less than 15 feet above sea level. And rising sea levels are just one concern. Salinization (increased salts in water) is rapidly increasing, too, impacting agriculture and compromising drinking water. These issues are of critical concern to the estimated 300,000 farmers depending on Bangladesh’s shrimp and prawn fisheries — known as “white gold” because of the high prices they haul in compared to other products.
To help Bangladeshis adapt, after assessing water parameters and ecosystems, SAFETI worked with partners to develop three specific farming methodologies for small-scale shrimp and prawn producers. Shrimp production requires the naturally available, brackish seawater of the Bay of Bengal, while prawns are farmed in freshwater. Climate issues, including salinization and less predictable, more extreme weather, directly affect shrimp and prawn farm production in the coastal belt of Bangladesh. According to the World Bank, droughts, floods and cyclones are among the country’s top climate-related vulnerabilities, with flooding and erosion affecting around 1 million people annually and inundating up to two-thirds of the country once every three to five years. Such events, along with rising sea levels, can result in the contamination or destruction of entire harvests and directly impact the coastal areas upon which shrimp and prawn farmers rely.
SAFETI’s goals included boosting Bangladesh’s aquaculture industry by increasing productivity and improving food quality in small-scale prawn and shrimp farming.
“As Bangladesh is an important trading partner for the United States, the SAFETI project is a unique example of the warm of relations between the two countries and how the United States is contributing to Bangladesh’s business environment, trade expansion, and the development of the emerging Indo-Pacific region.” — U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter D. Haas
SAFETI worked with farmers in 10 upazilas in Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat and Jashore districts, in southwestern Bangladesh. Considering geography, farming patterns and water quality, SAFETI categorized farmer groups most likely to benefit from three different, tailored farming methodologies, each of which emphasizes climate adaptation through careful monitoring and responding to changes in water salinity. Farmers received needs-based technical training, and later reported two-to-fourfold harvest increases over previous yields, with product quality meeting export requirements.
One of the keys to farmers’ success was adopting the Six Step process. The sequence includes removing black mud from the bottom of ponds, maintaining a water depth of 3-5 feet, using clean and disinfected water, ensuring biosecurity of the pond, stocking Specific Pathogen Free Post Larvae (SPF PL) shrimp, or hatchery-produced PL for prawn, administering superior quality feed, and maintaining water quality parameters and shrimp/prawn health. By consistently employing all these relatively simple-to-adopt practices, smallholder shrimp and prawn farmers could secure minimum yields of at least 1,000 kilograms per hectare, SAFETI estimated.
Slowly, demand for SPF PL shrimp began to rise, increasing from 2 percent availability in 2016 to meet an estimated 10 percent of national demand in 2022. Non-SPF shrimp hatcheries rely on wild broodstock collected from the Bay of Bengal, while prawn hatcheries rely on broodstock from rivers, both of which are more susceptible to disease.
Abdul Awal Milon, a shrimp farmer from Bagerhat, had practiced traditional farming methods on the 5.73-acre plot jointly owned with his brother but remained dissatisfied with his yields. He attended SAFETI trainings, re-excavated his pond and followed other improved practices for pond preparation, stocking, and post-stocking management. Within just four months, Milon harvested 127 kg of shrimp in their half-acre pond, earning a profit of about $483. After harvesting his shrimp, he stocked 4,500 prawns PL and fingerlings of carp fish, earning additional income from the same pond.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, SAFETI launched the Shrimp Farming Bangladesh app, expanding the accessibility of the Six Steps to Success training materials. The app offers unlimited offline access to all farming methodologies and training materials from the Six Steps and a user-friendly “Frequently Asked Questions” section with tailored responses. A customized aqua inputs calculator tallies and recommends how much feed and products a farmer needs, based on the individual’s farm scale and available feed. Since its creation in February 2020, the app has reached a total of 15,778 users. Its success has led Bangladesh’s Department of Fisheries and the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock to take over administration of the app after SAFETI closed in December 2022. The app can be found on the Google Play Store for Android users.
“This technology has opened my mind and I have found the best way to increase my production and income,” Milon said. “My work encourages my neighbors. They visit me and my farm for their own planning and farming.”
“SAFETI farming methodologies and the SAFETI Six Step approach are appropriate technologies developed in the country for smallholder farmers, proven to increase the productivity of 25,000 direct farmers by 125 percent and income by 122 percent from the baseline of 2017,” said S.M. Shaheen Anwar, SAFETI’s chief of party. “This can be leveraged as a ‘white gold revolution’ in the coastal area of Bangladesh.”
Photography provided by Md. Masud Rana, Humaira Sultana, & Saikat Majumder.