By Nita Bhalla
PUTIA VILLAGE, Bangladesh, Dec 20 (AlertNet) - For six months of the year, Bangladeshi rice farmer Raj Mia and his wife suffered as the annual monsoon rains flooded their fields, leaving them unable to feed their five children.
"For months, we had to find some other way to make money, like manual labor or breeding cheap fish like tilapia," said Raj, 48, standing by his submerged farm in the mud-and-thatch village of Putia, 60 km east of Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.
"It was a struggle as we didn't earn much."
Raj, like millions, lives on the flood plains of Bangladesh, a region increasingly battered by climate change-produced cyclones and rains which inundate swathes of farmland, perpetuating poverty for millions.
But now, Raj has new hope from an unlikely source: prawns.
Last year, he and other farmers in the Comilla district began breeding the crustaceans, along with the usual fish, in their flooded fields, boosting their incomes almost six-fold and learning business skills to help them sell in markets.
"We earned 80,000 taka ($1,038) this year," says Fatuma Begum, Raj's wife. "It's changed our lives ... we have been able to send our children to school."
An initiative introduced by the Center for Community Development Assistance (CCDA), a microfinance charity, has spread across the district. Some 250 families now live off freshwater prawn culture half the year, and cultivate rice when the water levels recede on the same land for the other half.
"By providing people with small loans and necessary training, our project introduces high value fish like prawns to local farmers and helps them use their land more effectively," said CCDA Executive Director M.A. Samad, adding that the pilot scheme is now being replicated by authorities in other flood-prone areas.
"This will develop business entrepreneurs, improve livelihoods and help lift many of these flood-hit communities out of poverty."
Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world. It is the drainage basin for rivers that start in the snowy Himalayan mountains of India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, including the massive Ganges and Brahmaputra, and criss-crossed by some 250 other rivers.
A few, such as the Meghna, swell to up to 8 km (5 miles) wide during the monsoon season, from June to September.
As a result, most of Bangladesh is a flood plain -- good arable land often at high risk of being submerged.
With 70 percent of the nation's 160 million people dependent on the land, and climate change threatening more extreme weather, it faces an upward struggle to improve food security.
Experts say microfinance, such as the prawn farming scheme funded by the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), may be a key source of help.
"Smallholder farmers are the backbone of the rural economy -- but they are bearing the brunt of climate change... The current speed and intensity of climate change are outpacing their capacity to adapt," said Thomas Rath, IFAD's Bangladesh program manager.
Rath said access to financial services in rural areas allows the poor to manage household cash flows, start new agricultural activities and set up small businesses, resulting in higher earnings and reducing the impact of climate change.
Projects like the one in Comilla bring microfinance to life.
Fishermen cast vast nets from rickety wooden boats in the middle of the lake-like flooded fields surrounding dusty village roads, pulling in a plentiful catch of prawns and other fish. The prawns fetch around 1,500 taka ($19) per kg and are sold domestically.
Villagers point to the visible improvement in their lives which they attribute to the prawn farming, such as the construction of toilets and more children in school.
But the loans, around 50,000 taka ($650) to start such businesses, are not cheap. They carry an interest rate of 26 percent -- up to three times higher than a personal loan from banks, and prompting criticism from social activists.
Lenders like the CCDA argue that high interest rates are justified, citing the costs of making and collecting door-to-door payments in remote rural areas on millions of tiny loans. It is still the best option for rural poor, they add.
Borrowers acknowledge the high rates, but also know their lives are better.
"Now I work too and sell the prawns in the market," said Fatuma, gazing out onto her flooded fields. "We've managed to build a better house as a result of the money we've earned."