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Feeding Bangladesh's growing population amid rising climate challenges

New technologies and agricultural practices key

Photo: ©FAO/Munir Uz Zaman
FAO is working with the Government of Bangladesh to unlock the agricultural potential of the southern coastal zone.
7 October 2010, Barisal and Khulna, Bangladesh - At first glance it looks like another of Bangladesh's hundreds of rivers − that is, until the half-submerged houses and blackened trees come into view.

Thousands of acres of rice paddy have been under water in Koira Upazila (sub-district) in southern Bangladesh since Cyclone Aila swept through more than a year ago, damaging miles of protective flood embankments and wiping out crops, fish stocks and livestock.

Like most rural Bangladeshis, people here rely heavily on agriculture, yet the stagnant floodwaters have rendered much of their crop land useless and made keeping goats or chickens nearly impossible.

"Before Aila, this area was better off than the monga-prone areas of the north," said Arabindo Biswas, a Koira upazila agricultural officer, referring to the Bengali term for seasonal food shortages. "Now it is much worse."

Many have left for Dhaka, the capital, to look for work. Others have stayed on, living along embankments and narrow roadsides in temporary shacks made of bamboo, mud bricks and plastic sheeting − one after the other.

Money is tight as jobs are scarce, plunging families deeper into poverty and hunger.

Surprisingly, many houses in the flooded areas remain inhabited.

"Where else are we supposed to go?" asked Zahiruddin Sarder, a 70-year old farm labourer. "The embankment is already over-crowded."

Multiple challenges

The scene in Koira, though extreme, speaks to the multiple challenges facing the Government of Bangladesh as it seeks, with FAO's help, to stimulate agricultural growth and development in the southern coastal belt − one of the country's poorest regions. 

Bangladeshi farmers in this low-lying delta have had to deal with a gamut of climate challenges − from increasingly unpredictable monsoon rains and river erosion to tidal surges and saltwater intrusion.

"In 2007 alone, we had two floods back-to-back in the south and then Cyclone Sidr," said Ad Spijkers, FAO Representative in Bangladesh. "We lost 1.8 million tonnes of rice. That amount can feed 10 million people for a year."

In Bangladesh, nearly 160 million people live in an area less than half the size of Italy and the population is expected to expand by about two million people per year.

The country has managed to triple its rice production in the 40 years since independence, but feeding such a rapidly growing population, especially given dwindling land and water resources and rising climate threats, requires new strategies, technologies and innovation.

This is the approach the government, with the help of FAO and other partners, is taking as it tries to turn the southern delta into an agricultural powerhouse and help the rural poor achieve greater prosperity.

Increased investments

These efforts have gathered steam thanks to initiatives like a $109 million World Bank-funded cyclone recovery and rehabilitation project − with FAO heading up the agricultural component − and a recent $50 million grant from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a multi-donor fund resulting from the L'Aquila Food Security Initiative.

The grant is in response to Bangladesh's country investment plan for agriculture, food security and nutrition, which builds on existing national food security policies and strategies.

Developed by the Government with FAO support, the plan maps out a set of priority investment programmes to improve the availability of safe and nutritious food, ensure that people have the means to buy the food they need and reverse the country's staggeringly high malnutrition rates.

Adapting to a changing climate

Work is already under way to introduce new crop varieties in the coastal zone − seeds tolerant to saline and other stresses − and so far results have been good, with farmers getting higher yields.  

Farmers are being trained in new agricultural practices, from modifying cropping patterns in order to cope with changing weather to ensuring the balanced use of fertilizers and modern machinery.

Significant attention is being paid to improving water and infrastructure management. Damaged embankments and dikes − crucial to protecting fields from tidal surges and sea water intrusion − need to be repaired.

Silted rivers and canals need to be dredged to allow for proper drainage and water flow and surface water irrigation systems need to be developed.

"If you look at the agricultural success in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, you will see that they have done a lot of work on irrigation water management and I think there are lessons to be learned there," said Spijkers.

There is also a push to improve the productivity of brackish water shrimp farming, which has good export potential, and to promote smallholder poultry and dairy production.

These efforts will help boost incomes and create new jobs, especially among women and the landless, and ensure that people have access to a more diversified food basket, including some form of protein.