Landlessness, Water Access, and Development in the Bangladeshi Floodplains: Floating Villages in the Face of Climate Change

People all over the world share the experience concerning access to and use of water resources. The particular problem may be too much water causing destructive floods, too little water to sustain human livelihood, too many people vying for a limited amount, or even all three problems. Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, experiences drastic seasonal variations in water availability.

Small Country, Lots of Water

Nearly 160 million people cohabitate roughly 90,000 square miles (slightly smaller than Iowa), a population density of nearly 1,800 people per square mile. Floodplains encompass 80% of Bangladesh as three rivers flow from the Himalayas through the country (the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, and the Maghna) to create the largest river delta in the world at the Indian Ocean. On average, Bangladesh sits only thirty three feet above sea level. Few countries are more threatened by the immediate impacts of climate change than Bangladesh. Its unique geography and population density mean more intense and chaotic monsoon oscillations and fluctuations in snow melt patterns feeding the Himalayan rivers impact Bangladeshis directly and substantially.

Inequitable Land Distribution Amongst Rural Farmers

Dkaha, the capital, is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, but nearly 70% of Bangladeshis still live in rural areas and engage in agricultural practices as their main source of income. Inequitable distribution and landlessness plague Bangladeshi society as so many people compete for property. Nearly 89% of the population owns less than 2.5 acres of land and 13% of rural Bangladeshis own absolutely no real property. Those who do not own land squat on government-owned land, or engage in sharecropping, using the land of an affluent owner for a steep price. The largely poor population struggles to access property ownership through an ineffective, complicated, and often corrupt institutional framework to secure land title.

Lack of Legally Protected Water for Rural Farmers

Formal access to water is tied to land ownership. All water in Bangladesh is owned by the national government, which allocates appropriations through permits and licenses based on recognized land ownership. Owners of water rights can create protections on their land through drainage systems and canals during the runoff season and can formally access their water allocations during the dry season. Without legal title to their property, many farmers in rural Bangladesh have no formal access to water for irrigation during the farming season and lack the ability to protect fields from flooding during the wet season. This informality is an accepted norm in Bangladesh, where rural poor eke out a living for six months a year on borrowed land and borrowed water.

The other half of the year, the rivers flow at their highest rates due to snowmelt in the Himalayas and monsoonal rains fueled by the Indian Ocean. Most of the floodplains, where rural farming primarily occurs, is under ten or more feet of water, leaving no access to land for living, let alone farming. Income for these rural residents disappears for six months as nearby villages are cut off from one another, along access to infrastructure such as hospitals and schools as nearby villages are cut off from one another. The inability to work and the isolation from society creates a breeding ground for hunger, domestic violence, illiteracy, and a lack of medical care.

The national government recognizes the problems of landlessness and water access on paper through various poverty reduction strategy reports to the World Bank and other international development agencies. Unfortunately, legislative reforms to the land allocation and tenure systems in the last two decades failed to put land in the hands of the landless. Instead, corruption and bribery continues to concentrate land ownership with the wealthy, further exacerbating the land and water access problem in rural areas.

Turning the Tides of Sustainable Livelihoods

Where the government fails to meet the needs of its people, Bangladeshis themselves find creative solutions to the landlessness problem. Enter Shidhula Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladeshi non-profit founded in 1998, that creates floating villages in the country’s northwestern region. Even though Shidhula initially helped villages create floating schools, libraries, and hospitals, complete with wireless internet access, these structures failed to meet the income and nutritional needs of farmers and their families. Recently, Shidhula expanded their development services to include floating farms, operated primarily by women, educated by Shidhula’s adult education programs on the floating schools. These farms recycle oil drums, plastic jugs, bamboo, and discarded netting to create enclosed tilapia ponds, duck coops, and vegetable gardens. The gardens provide fresh vegetable and protein in the otherwise lean flood season, sustaining families both nutritionally and economically. The communally operated structures enable women to earn income for their families when traditional farmable land is inaccessible. Empowering women to provide for their families helps redefine gender roles in Bangladesh’s traditionally conservative Muslim society.

Traditionally an obstacle, Bangladesh’s annual floods are now an opportunity for development in rural communities. To date, Shidhula operates over 100 boats, with plans to build more. These floating villages, complete with reliable food sources, can provide stability for floodplain dwellers in the face of climate change impacts on flood and monsoon patterns.

The title image features a man fishing in a flooded agricultural field in Bangladesh. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by the image owner who does not endorse this blog.


USAID, Country Profile: Bangladesh Property Rights and Resource Governance, (Nov 2010) available at

Shidhula Swanirvar Sangstha,, (last visited Jan. 19, 2015).

Amy Yee, Farming on Water to Prevent Effect of Rising Waters, New York Times (Nov. 18, 2014),

The CIA WorldFact Book: Bangladesh, (last visited Jan. 19, 2015).

Ben Schiller, In Bangladesh, Floating Schools, Farms, and Health Clinics Help Stay on Top of Rising Waters, Co.Exist, (last visited Jan. 19, 2015).