Bangladesh’s annual GDP growth rates of over 6% in the 2011-19 has led to higher disposable income and significant human development, especially for the rural population. Agriculture has been a key sector for Bangladesh in terms of poverty reduction in rural areas, with the sector being accountable for reducing 90% of poverty in Bangladesh between 2005 and 2010.[1] Currently, almost 51% of the total rural population are working in the sector[2] and contributing 13% to the GDP of Bangladesh.[3]

Despite this increase in livelihood, this economic progress has not been uniform throughout Bangladesh, as residents of the haor region suffer from relatively higher rates of poverty.[4] Most people in the haor regions are living well below the poverty line which limits their ability to have a better standard of living. The inequality faced by haor dwellers in Bangladesh is a reminder that much work is still left in the development of the country.

Haor region at a glance

Haor regions are large bowl-shaped floodplains, which are situated in the north-eastern regions of Bangladesh, predominantly located in the district of Habiganj, Sunamganj, Netrokona, Sylhet, Maulvibazar, and Brahmanbaria. The land area is approximately 858,460 ha and is the home to an estimated 19.37 million people.[4]

DistrictHaor area (in ha)No. of haors
Sunamganj268,53195
Sylhet189,909105
Kishoreganj133, 94397
Habiganj109,51414
Netrokona79,34552
Maulvibazar47,6023
Brahmanbaria29,6167
Total [4]858,460373
Table 1 Haor Population by Area
Figure 1: Map of Haor regions

Haor is a distinctive region that has the possibility to expand the available land for agricultural cultivation in Bangladesh. Cropped land area in Bangladesh has been shrinking and for Bangladesh to remain self-sufficient, alternatives must be explored. Haor regions are an underutilized area in terms of agriculture, and therefore, further development is required to make the region more productive.[5] The scenery of the region is also unique and can be used as a tourist destination if suitable accommodation is put in place. Overall, the region has the potential to be of greater economic value to Bangladesh.

Transportation poses challenge seasonally

One big setback is that haor regions are extremely prone to flooding, which brings various challenges to the region. Pre-monsoon flooding is erratic, while the monsoon flood is more predictable as it generally occurs at a specific time each year. Due to this, most households are submerged during the monsoon season and migration is common among the residents. Transportation is also a two-fold challenge for the Haor residents, during the dry season the waterways are not suitable to travel by boats due to the low tide, and during the monsoon season, the low roads are inaccessible. During mid-October, both waterways and low roads are unusable, so this means during this period traveling is mostly done on foot.

Lack of knowledge hampers Agricultural Output

The biggest challenge however is agriculture, as reported, 0.33 million ha or BDT 3,486 million (3% of the national contribution to the GDP) worth of agriculture is destroyed each year.[4] Agriculture is the dominant occupation in the region with most practicing mono-agriculture, which means farmers produce only one type of crop (usually rice). The region has the potential to grow different types of crops, but further studies need to be conducted in terms of soil composition to better understand the obstacles faced by the farmers.

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Raising livestock presents its own challenges in the region, mainly due to lack of land space to herd livestock. Most raise livestock in their backyard, however, due to lack of adequate space, it is often congested for the animal and very unhygienic for the resident.

Fisheries is another means of livelihood for the residents of the Haor regions. Most fishermen lack knowledge in proper fishing techniques and cannot afford the basic fishing gear necessary. The local ecology and fish diversity have dwindled due to overfishing of specific types of fishes and sedimentation in the rivers.

Education and employment rates along with financial access for women are low in the region

One of the crucial social problems faced by the residents of haor regions is access to services such as education, food, and sanitation. Despite the rigorous effort by both the government of Bangladesh (GoB) and various Non-government Organizations (NGO), the literacy rate remains lower than the national average of 53%.[6] One of the biggest challenges is retaining teachers for the whole year, as part of the haor region is inaccessible during the monsoon flooding. Along with that, families are often not fully aware of the benefits of education as they have not received sufficient access to education. Some parents cannot send their children to school due to their poverty status and as a result, children often end up helping parents with agriculture work or household chores in lieu of school. This lack of education is one key reason for high rates of poverty in the region, as the residents lack the necessary skills to obtain employment.[7]

Industry in the haor region is almost non-existing as the geographic location along with lack of infrastructure limits any potential avenue for opening factories. Small cottage industries are present on a small scale and the service industry is limited to small shops in the region. This shows a clear lack of employment opportunities for the residents in haor.

Though women play an important role in economic activities, the discrimination of women in society is also a challenge in the region. High rates of early marriage and dropout from school are common for women in the region. Women entrepreneurs also lack access to finance, so it is more difficult for them to establish their business compared to their male counterparts.

Long-term plans by the Government focuses on the various challenges faced by the residents

Concerned with all of the aforementioned issues the GoB, through The Bangladesh Haor and Wetland Development Board (BHWDB), have developed a master plan to alleviate the residents of the haor regions from poverty. The master plan framework was developed in 2012 and it is to be implemented until 2032 while incorporating changes as necessary along the way. The project is divided into 3 categories: Short-term (1-5 years), Medium-term (6-10 years), and Long-term (11-20 years).

Currently, there are 154 development projects in the haor region with the top three areas of development being Transportation, Fisheries, and Agriculture, while a significant percentage (12%) of the total funding (BDT 2,804,305) will also be dedicated to Power and Energy.[8] Development projects are undertaken by the central government and it is implemented by various implementing agencies. The individual agencies have their mandate and focus on one specific area. With the help of multiple agencies, poverty alleviation in the haor region is achievable, however, it is highly dependent on good governance practices and channeling funds to the correct implementers.

Government and NGOs delivering much-needed services, while tackling various issues impeding development in the haor region

One project titled Pre-monsoon Flood Protection and Drainage Improvement in the Haor Area will use existing schemes to protect the residents from flash floods and improve the drainage. The project is deemed as a high priority by the BHWDB, and it will be supported by the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) and the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM).[8]

The government is also taking initiatives to increase high-yielding paddy (BRRI Dham 89, 92) which can be harvested 15-20 earlier so it does not get destroyed by flash flooding.[9] Along with that, the government is also implementing the use of a new cropping pattern to increase cropping intensity. The main objective is to shift away from mono culturing to growing double or triple crops by utilizing fallow land.[8]

Other than the government projects, several NGOs are working to develop the haor region. One such initiative is taken by BRAC through their Integrated Development Project, which aims to deliver all of BRAC services in the hard-to-reach areas like haor. The program focuses on women empowerment, enhancing basic services access, diversified and sustainable livelihood, and advocacy for strengthening development efforts. The services are provided through their Village Development Organization (VDO) platform which solely consists of women, who are also beneficiaries of the program. Along with that, BRAC also enables the resident access to finance through their microfinance program.[10]

Along with that CARE Bangladesh is implementing programs that focus on food security for the ultra-poor called Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities (SHOUHARDO). They also have a program that focuses on women empowerment and adolescent health called Adolescent and Reproductive Sexual Health Initiative (ARSHI).[11]The challenge lies in the implantation, as the various problems faced are interconnected and must be addressed at the same time. The government would likely need to take a more integrated approach in the development of the haor regions. Government agencies and NGOs will need to support and help each other to mitigate most of the challenges. Communication between the different NGOs would also help reach more beneficiaries as some projects have similar themes. In addition, communication between the various implementing agencies is essential for the continuation of development in the region. Additionally, focus should be placed on enrollment to schools, especially for secondary and above, along with diversifying employment opportunities in the region.

Khandaker Muhtasim Rafi, Business Consultant, and Farah Hamud Khan, Senior Business Consultant & Project Manager, at LightCastle Partners, have prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

References

  • 1. Bangladesh: Growing the Economy through Advances in Agriculture – The World Bank. 
  • 2. Labor Force Survey (2016) – Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 
  • 3. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 2019-20 – Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 
  • 4. Master Plan of Haor Area (2012), Volume I – Department of Bangladesh Haor and Wetlands Development. 
  • 5. Crop Production in the Haor Areas of Bangladesh: Insights from Farm Level Survey (2011) – The Agriculturists.
  • 6. HIES (2016) – Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 
  • 7. The study for rural development focusing on flood proofing in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh – Japan International Cooperation Agency.
  • 8. Master Plan of Haor Area (2012), Volume III – Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 
  • 9. Agriculture Minister: Prioritizing high-yielding paddy for haor areas – Dhaka Tribune. 
  • 10. Integrated Development – BRAC. 
  • 11. CARE Bangladesh Programme Strategy: Haor Region – CARE Bangladesh. 
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