Zakir Gazi: Bangladesh’s unlikely climate warrior

Zakir Gazi, Bangladesh's unlikely climate warrior. Photo Credit: Author.

Zakir Gazi is affectionately called Lungi Zakir in the salinity hit Kumirmara village in the southern Bangladesh coastal sub district of Kalapara. He is a living legend to the forty three thousand farmers in the Pakhimara Union – a union is a cluster of 15-20 villages. He is your unlikeliest of climate warrior whose relentless search for local solution – in the great traditions of Aroj Ali Matubbor – to a global climate change problem has made him a hero to tens of thousands of farming families.

More than 15 years ago, when he was still too young, Zakir found out a simple solution to growing salinity problem in his coastal Union. Thanks to salinity, the farmers in the region were only able to grow some rice crop in the monsoon, low yielding pulses and a local variety of pumpkin.

Farmers were fed up with eating too much pumpkin dishes and the acreage yield was so low many adult males would migrate to the cities during the salinity hit season of winter to drive rickshaws, work as masons or serve as bonded labor in the country’s many brick kilns.

The level of salinity increased almost every year. While farmers in other inland parts of the country would use extracted ground water to farm crops in the winter, the farmers at Pakhimara couldn’t. “Here salinity has seeped into the ground water, meaning we effectively could do nothing during the entire winter season. Hunger was pervasive and people were too poor,” Lungi Zakir told me late last month.

So Zakir and his friends such as Sultan Gazi came up with a solution: they decided to preserve the fresh water of the 6.5 kilometers long Pakhimara Khal (canal) through the winter days to until early summer.

The canal surrounds the Kumirmara village and has effectively turned it into an inland island. But when the water development authorities would open up sluice gates during the winter, tidal sea water would raise its salinity level to an extent that the water could no longer be used for irrigation.

One December in 2005 Zakir, who was then a part time Mason, led a bunch a villagers and worked nonstop for days to plug the holes in the coastal levees, which would allow saline water to seep through the fresh water of Pakhimara village. And it worked wonder. They preserve the fresh water until mid-April until its last drop to farm winter crops and vegetables. And they repeated the feat years after years since then.

The preserved water revolutionized farming in Pakhimara. Instead of one major crop, farmers in the rural backwater now farm at least three crops a year. A green revolution has swept the area and the villages are now known as the Vegetable Bowl of greater Barisal region. They even supply vegetables to thousands of Chinese who work in a coal power plant and to the capital if the price was better than the local districts.

Zakir and his fellow farmers didn’t stop there. With the help of YouTube and a charity, they launched Betnala farming technique, which helps preserve the wetness of the soil from evaporating by raising its bed and then covering it with black polythene sheet. This way ground water salinity could be pushed back from seeping upwards.

They have also embraced new and high yielding vegetables such as capsicum and Naga Peppers and all-season water melon. They dug up small ditches between farms to preserve irrigation water to rear fresh water fish. And then Zakir used a drum technology to build a bridge after the old one collapsed during one monsoon.” Fresh water is like liquid gold. We must use every drop of it,” he told me while showing around the scenic Pakhimara Khal.

Today, Kumirmara villagers can afford three square meals a day. New concrete homes are everywhere. Electricity connections have brought luxuries such as television and fridges. The once dirt poor farmers are increasingly sending their kids to universities in the cities for higher studies. Lungi Zakir now owns two mobile phones – the smart one he especially uses to search innovative new farming technology in Internet to fight off salinity or increase crop yields.

Instead of migrating to the cities as climate refugees Lungi Zakir chose to fight back and find ways to adapt. He didn’t want to leave what his calls “precious holy land” where his ancestors are lying. He thought there were always ways to ride out crisis, no matter how big it is.

Author: Bureau Chief at AFP News Agency in Bangladesh.