Appeal: The floating garden helps farmers beat the floods

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Indy Politics

Tara Begum and her three children have had to shift their home five times. "The river gobbled up all we had," she shrugs. "We were at its mercy."

Flooding intensified and lasted longer each season, until the fields the family worked were submerged year round, not just for the usual two months.

The family had to livein a makeshift shack on top of the public flood control embankment of the Brahmaputra river while Tara's husband, Ayub Ali, searched for work as a hired field hand. "Many days he could not find any work and we had to go hungry," she recalls.

Due to global warming, more ice now melts in the Himalayan glaciers, with catastrophic consequences far downstream in Bangladesh. And each minuscule rise in the ocean temperature increases the havoc of tidal surges in these unstable rivercourses. Scientists calculate that an increase of just 1C would put 11 per cent of the country underwater - affecting 55 million people. Remote islands and peninsulas of river silt, which provided a precarious refuge to poor Bangladeshi farmers for centuries, are already being washed away.

In Gaibandha, a district in northern Bangladesh, 90 per cent of residents have lost their lands to the Bhramaputra river because of climate change. But Tara is one of 20,000 erosion victims learning skills to lift themselves out of poverty.

After watching a demonstration by Practical Action, one of the three international charities sponsored by The Independent's Christmas campaign this year, Tara tried some of their low-tech innovations for coping with vanishing lands. She has reinvented herself as a floating gardener.

The technique is ingenious: she fashions a raft out of water hyacinth - a prolific weed which chokes ponds after the monsoons. Helped by her two daughters and son, Tara weaves the water hyacinth roots to form a buoyant raft measuring 8 metres by 1 metre - bigger than the floor of their shanty - and then sprinkles it with 25cm of soil and seeds it with pumpkin, okra and aubergine.

"After our first harvest we had a grand feast. Even after we filled our bellies and put aside some vegetables for seed, we were able to sell the rest at the market for a profit of 4,000 thaka (£35.) Now we have a second raft going, and will replant both after the rains," she says with pride.

The gardens float on the the Brahmaputra, impervious to flooding, and the hyacinth roots act as a natural fertiliser. Rafts can be reused, and hauled to a shadier or sunnier spot on a more protected canal.

Tara's neighbours are eager to try their own rafts next season, and turned to Practical Action for technical advice on how to increase the gardens' yield and to ward off the hungry ducks who have grown to recognise these fertile floats.

Local experts from this organisation have made a difference in this neglected region of Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries. Practical Action builds emergency flood shelters for the landless. It also fights cholera, typhoid and dysentery by simply fitting a one-metre pipe extension to existing wells, which keeps drinking water uncontaminated. The NGO provides seed loans and vocational training to help people find alternative occupations as welders and tailors.

Tara is keen on all of Practical Action's alternative methods for cultivating public land: she also dug 10 pits on former wasteland, lined them with a rich water-hyacinth, mustard and cow dung compost and planted these with fast-growing squash and beans, plus peanuts for extra protein.

Extra vitamins from fresh vegetables boost the deficient local diet of watery lentils and plain rice. So much so that now nearly everyone in the shanty town flung up on an earthen levee can eat more than 1,800 calories a day. Practical Action has helped these people bring triumph out of their adversity.

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