a farmer herds a waddling of ducks
Susannah Savage

To Survive in a Wetter World, Raise Ducks, Not Chickens

Farmers in Bangladesh are adapting to climate change, and it’s having an impact in faraway places—including on restaurant menus.

DHAKA, Bangladesh—Here at Binni, a slightly run-down restaurant in one of Dhaka’s trendier neighborhoods, beef, chicken, and mutton dishes are slapped down on the table with a mere murmur. But when the waiter brings Hash Bhuna to the table, he announces it to the whole room, laying down the plate and pulling off the ceramic lid with a theatrical hand flick.

Coated in a thick layer of spicy sauce, the duck (hash in Bengali) is succulent and dark, and well deserving of its reputation as a traditional South Asian delicacy. Once a special treat reserved for winter, Hash Bhuna is more and more available out of season. And in Dhaka’s growing number of East Asian restaurants, duck dishes are also always on the menu these days.

A four-hour drive away, in Bangladesh’s wetland region, Shopna Akter’s life, too, has changed. She used to raise chickens while her husband worked as a laborer on rice paddies nearby. Climate change has made that way of life unpredictable, though—sudden floods caused rice crops and chickens to perish and incomes to plummet. Recently the couple switched and began raising ducks, a business that is now prospering. The reason for their success? “Ducks,” Akter told me matter-of-factly, “can swim.”

They are part of a duck-farming program introduced by a local nongovernmental organization, BRAC, which, along with other NGOs elsewhere in the country, is trying to help farmers adapt to changing weather conditions. This is just one among a growing array of efforts to help the vulnerable around the world cope with the effects of climate change without forcing them to move away—the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a Switzerland-based NGO, says 17.2 million people were displaced worldwide last year because of fast- and slow-onset climate-related disasters. Yet programs such as the one here illustrate the manifold impact that such adaptation programs have, not just for those doing the adapting, but for others as well, affecting everyday issues such as what is on the menu at a faraway restaurant.

As a delta country, full of rivers and surrounded by the sea, Bangladesh is one of the places most affected by climate change, and the eighth most prone to natural disasters, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It faces myriad issues, including rising sea levels, river and coastal erosion, increased water and soil salinity, flooding, drought, storms, and cyclones.

Life in the Haors revolves around the water. The region used to experience seasonal flooding, but now, as a result of climate change, rainfall is unpredictable. (Susannah Savage)

The Haors, the wetlands where Akter lives, used to have regular rains, says Miganur Rahman, a BRAC staffer, but now precipitation is unpredictable. There are periods of both unexpected flooding and drought. This has a big impact on paddy farmers: When the rain comes too early, they cannot harvest their crops, and lose their investment. Unpredictable rainfall in neighboring India also has an impact, says Feisal Rahman, a research coordinator at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, a Dhaka-based think tank: The steep slope from the Himalayas means that when it rains across the border, the Haors are hit by “a deluge of water.”

BRAC is trying to scale up duck farming to create a more resilient livelihood for people in the Haors, where previously ducks were raised only on a small scale. The organization carefully selects people—mostly women—to receive training in duck raising and an interest-free loan of 100,000 taka (about $1,200).

The advantages of ducks for farmers such as Akter are several. Chickens catch infections much more easily than ducks do when they get wet, too hot, or too cold, Helal Uddin, the BRAC agriculturalist who first came up with the duck program, told me. And when it rained, Akter and her husband had to pay to raise the floor of their coop to protect the chickens, cutting into their profits. The couple “had to stress about selling them as soon as possible,” Akter said.

Ducks are also more profitable, selling for almost twice as much as similar-size chickens. While the price might eventually go down as supply increases, duck raising still provides a year-round income—unlike rice crops, which, because of the region’s weather patterns, can be harvested only once a year.

Mohamed Nazrul, a farmer in the Haors, has developed a thriving duck business. He and his small team take care of thousands of ducks, herding them to and from the water. (Susannah Savage)

Akter’s ducks are sold as meat, but others are involved in different parts of duck farming. A decade ago, Pinku Das and his wife, Shipra, started to raise ducks for eggs when his work as a day laborer was not bringing in enough money. For the first four years, the couple had only about 20 ducks, but after receiving a loan and training from BRAC, they were able to scale up their business. Now they have a few thousand ducks and are collecting at least 500 eggs a day, and their income has jumped about tenfold.

“It’s a huge value chain,” says Miganur Rahman, the BRAC staffer. “A whole economic shift is taking place, which started just a few years ago—all because of ducks.”

In just the Haors, BRAC says about 300 families are involved in hatching, 2,000 raise the ducklings, and an additional 4,000 farm adult ducks. Elsewhere in the country, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and CARE International run other duck-raising projects.

Nor is it just ducks. In the southwest of Bangladesh, crab fattening is on the rise. Its proponents hope crabs, which sell at high prices—especially the meatier ones—can form part of a new coastal economy, stemming the tide of migration to the cities.

Rising sea levels and the increased intrusion onto arable land of salt water, which makes soil infertile, have made traditional agriculture farming impossible for many who live in this region, which borders the Sundarban mangrove forest. As a result, farmers have, over several years, shifted from paddy farming to shrimp cultivation. This, however, has created fresh problems, as it requires regularly bringing more salty water inland, further destroying the farmland needed to grow crops and causing more environmental damage.

Much like the duck-raising programs, organizations such as the British-based charity Voluntary Service Overseas and the United Nations Development Program are providing loans and training for crab fattening. According to VSO’s program manager, Shafiqur Rahman, this is less environmentally damaging and more profitable than shrimp cultivation. Crabs are also more disease-resistant and more resilient to change in water salinity than shrimp are. And farmers typically need far fewer crabs, which are easier to take care of, to make the same profit. Besides crabs, the UNDP project is introducing cow, goat, and pig fattening and hydroponic vegetable-growing (which involves cultivating plants in a mineral-nutrient solution rather than soil) to help communities that have been left landless by river erosion and rising soil salinity. The efforts also have the consequence of arresting migration from these areas to cities. Sapna Khan, who lives on the edge of the Sundarbans, uses the additional money she has earned by raising goats to put her son through school. “I want him to be able to stay here and make a living, not have to leave for the city,” she told me.

The lives of Shopna Akter and her family have changed significantly since they started rearing ducks. Now, she says, they are much happier. (Savannah Savage)

In the Haors, Akter’s life has already changed. A few years ago, her ducks went no farther than the nearest town, Habiganj, where, in the local markets—at that time disconnected from national business chains—they were sold at artificially low prices.

Now they are carried by traveling duck traders along the bumpy tracks from her village of Kander Hathi to the Sylhet-Dhaka highway, and hawked in the hubbub of one of the capital’s bazaars. Finally, they end up diced and spiced on plates in restaurants like Binni, and in the bellies of well-to-do Dhakaites—happy to pay hundreds of taka for a morsel of Hash Bhuna.