Bangladeshi farmers look beyond rice as wells run dry

by Abu Rushd Md. Ruhul Amin | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 July 2011 11:58 GMT

Production of wheat, pulses and vegetables rises as water dwindles due to climate change and overuse for irrigation

RAJSHAHI, Bangladesh (AlertNet) - Hashim Uddin, a farmer in the northwest Bangladeshi district of Rajshahi, finds growing rice too expensive these days. This year he decided to cultivate vegetables on four of his 10 hectares of land.

Producing rice has become more costly amid rising prices for seeds, fertiliser, insecticide, power, irrigation and labour. “That’s why I’m trying to cultivate vegetables and hoping to get more profit,” said Hashim, who lives in Jikra Para village.

Groundwater levels in the Barind Tract, which includes Rajshahi, have dropped due to climate change and massive extraction for irrigation. This is pushing farmers to try new crops besides rice, especially varieties that are drought-resistant and need less water.

Local government statistics show that production of boro (winter) rice is declining in Rajshahi, falling from 334,532 tonnes in the 2009-10 financial year to 302,218 tonnes in 2010-11.

Geological experts say the farmers of the Barind highlands are partly to blame for water shortages due to their use of deep tube wells since the mid-1980s. 

In 1985, when these wells were first introduced in Rajshahi, the water table was 30 feet below the surface. But 20 years later, it had dropped by a further 12 feet, to 42 feet below ground.

Badar Miah, a farmer in Chapal village, Rajshahi, said around 80 hectares of local land is now being left uncultivated because the well that irrigated it no longer functions. Miah is now growing pulses on one acre of his land, as they don’t need much water.

According to local journalist Jahid Hassan, it was the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA), set up by the agriculture ministry in 1984, that began promoting deep tube wells for irrigation.

Production soared so much that the surplus was used to meet food needs in other parts of the country, and the region was dubbed the “the grain store of the country”. But over the past five years, the drop in groundwater has caused major problems for irrigation systems, threatening crop cultivation.


Respected food expert Mahabub Hossain, executive director of the Bangladeshi development organisation BRAC, said rice cultivation during the dry season using extracted groundwater has boosted food production, but relies too much on a fast-dwindling resource. “It’s an unsustainable system; we cannot depend on it for long,” he said.

Hossain emphasised the importance of introducing drought-tolerant rice in the Barind region, calling for more research into new crop varieties that can cope better with climate change.

In Rajshahi, the summer season is getting longer and the winter is becoming less chilly, said Haider Ali, a farmer in Chapal. The shifting local climate is another factor pushing farmers to choose alternative crops.

The Barind region has a typically dry climate with comparatively high temperatures, ranging from 8 degrees Celsius to 44 degrees Celsius, except in the wet season that runs from mid-June to October. Local rainfall averages 1,500mm to 2,000mm per year.  

Professor Chowdhury Sarwar Jahan, head of the department of geology and mining at Rajshahi University, said the region is experiencing more intense droughts and desertification has already begun.

Faced with the combined impact of climate change and declining water levels, the BMDA and the Rajshahi agriculture extension department are encouraging farmers to diversify into new crops, especially for spring harvesting.

They are starting to cultivate more wheat, maize, chickpeas, lentils and other vegetables.

Wheat, for example, requires only one fifth of the water needed for rice, according to Jahan.

But Rahela Pervin, an officer with the local agricultural department, said climate change is also causing losses among farmers who grow wheat, because the seeds they plant are not adapted to shifting climate patterns.


In an attempt to prevent food shortages, the government has tested out local production of seeds that can thrive in a warmer climate.

These have been distributed among farmers, and have produced exceptionally good harvests, boosting wheat cultivation. According to local government figures, wheat production in Rajshahi district rose from 71,352 tonnes in the 2009-2010 financial year to 74,900 metric tons in 2010-2011.

But even these new varieties may struggle as temperatures continue to rise.

According to Bangladesh Food Minister Abdur Razzak, the Barind region used to be more suitable for wheat cultivation due to its relatively cool winter climate. But as winter temperatures have risen, wheat yields are declining. “We must develop more varieties of wheat, so that they can tolerate warmer temperatures,” he said.

Razzak said the government is taking steps to address climate challenges to the production of Bangladesh’s staple foods.  Rice production still accounts for around two thirds of arable output, while wheat makes up less than 2 percent.

With water scarcity a growing problem, there is a growing need to adopt crops that require less irrigation, Razzak added.

“We will have to develop expertise on water management, and how we can harvest more food using less water,” he said.

Abu Rushd Md. Ruhul Amin is a news editor with the private Bangladeshi television channel BanglaVision. His reporting focuses on environment, development, agriculture and climate change issues.



Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.