Feeding Bangladesh’s growing population amid rising climate challenges

November 1st, 2010

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

October 2010

(FAO Media Centre: a case study)