UCA News

Bangladeshi farmers pay price for climate change

Extreme weather situations like dry summers, low rainfall, and untimely flooding cause high crop production costs
A Bangladeshi farmer uses plastic bottles to drip feed water to his crops in Bosnoil village, Chapai Nawabganj district during summer in this photo taken in 2016

A Bangladeshi farmer uses plastic bottles to drip feed water to his crops in Bosnoil village, Chapai Nawabganj district during summer in this photo taken in 2016. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Published: August 18, 2023 12:41 PM GMT
Updated: August 21, 2023 05:11 AM GMT

Abdus Salam has been bedridden with a fever for a couple of days, but he is more anxious about the repayment of debts that he incurred to cultivate paddy in the field, only to see the crop destroyed by the recent floods.

A marginal farmer from Kurigram, a poverty-stricken northern district, 60-year-old Salam planted rice in his 165 decimals of land by borrowing 20,000 Taka (US$183) from relatives and friends. The crop in just 10 decimals of land survived.

Salam now considers taking a high-interest loan from a local usurer.  

“Worries and anxieties make me sick,” Salam said, adding that, unlike many local farmers, he was never caught in a “debt trap.” But not anymore.

Salam has been cultivating rice thanks to favorable monsoon weather in the past years.

But changing weather conditions have played havoc with hundreds of farmers like Salam in Bangladesh, who lost their crops to floods in August.

The loss adds to their woes as the production cost of rice has spiked in recent years due to a prolonged dry summer and a hike in electricity prices.

Agronomists say cultivation of the rainy season rice variety, Aman rice that farmers like Salam cultivate, has increased by 20 percent because of unexpected dry conditions. 

Erratic weather patterns such as extremely dry summer, low rainfall, and delayed monsoon over the past few years have made rice cultivation and other major crops difficult and expensive, farmers say.

Farmers abandon cultivation 

Yusuf Ali, 45, a farmer of Charghat in Rajshahi, another northern district, said he cultivated only a portion of his land.  A drought-like situation prevented him from planting rice in the rest of the fields.

The four-month monsoon season from June has been rather dry due to rain deficits, according to the state-run Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD).

Six out of the first seven months were extremely dry with January being the driest month with no rainfall.

The weather agency reported about 16 percent rain deficit in June and 51 percent in July. 

At the start of the monsoon, fields lay cracked, delaying rice planting for weeks and eventually prompting farmers to take groundwater using diesel-run pumps for irrigation.

Most farmers cultivate the Aman variety of rice in the rainy season and harvest it in winter.

"Aman is a rain-fed crop but not anymore,” said Fazlul Karim, who teaches agronomy at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University in the capital Dhaka.

“Aman production also substantially drops if it is planted late, particularly after the first week of August,” he said.

Department of Agricultural Extension data shows the government had expected the cultivation of Aman in about 6 million hectares but only 50 percent of the targeted area was cultivated by August 17. 

Shariful Islam, a farmer from Mohadebpur, Naogaon, a northern district, said he did not have enough money to cultivate his land.

Disappearing groundwater 

Dry season means increased cost of irrigation. An hour of irrigation costs 200 Taka, he said adding that one acre needs 12 hours of irrigation.

Before aman season, jute planters battled even harsher conditions because of unusually less rainfall.

In some areas, groundwater levels dropped so low that water-lifting pumps were rendered useless. Consequently, jute plants grew up undernourished.

During harvest between late June and early July, many jute growers created artificial ponds with lifted groundwater for decomposing jute to separate its fiber.  

In the past, they just cut jute plants and threw them in the numerous canals and rivers flowing all around, filled to the brim with the arrival of monsoon.

Jute plant decomposed in flowing water produces better-quality fiber, farmers say. In stagnated water, plants take longer to decompose.

Extracting fiber from jute decomposed in ponds is hard and doubles the labor needed, farmers said. 

“The situation is getting worse every year. What is happening did not occur even in our wildest imaginations,’ said Yusuf Ali, who, along with seven other farmers, spent 6,600 Taka (US$60) for creating an artificial pond. 

The study conducted by the Institute of Water Modeling revealed that the average groundwater level in the region dropped to 18 meters from 8 meters in the past three decades.

The water level depletion, caused by extensive groundwater withdrawal for irrigating rice grown in the dry season, apparently multiplied the impacts of changing weather.

Dangerous times

“It seems a seasonal shift is taking place, particularly regarding the rainy season,” said Abdul Mannan, a former meteorologist of the BMD.

“Weather has become erratic,” he said, adding that Bangladesh experienced an agricultural drought this year.

And now the prospect of a late monsoon flood got stronger with intermittent unusually heavy rains occurring in August, triggering flash floods in northern and southern Bangladesh.

Tens of thousands of hectares of crop fields have been flooded, including 52,000 hectares in Chattogram division, and many of them are still underwater.

“These are extreme weather events caused by climate change,” said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a non-government organization involved in climate research.

“Agriculture is being impacted by these events for some time now,” he said.

In 2019-2020, a flood in August destroyed Aman crops in more than half of Bangladesh or 37 districts, incurring a loss of 13.23 billion Taka (US$ 119 million), according to government data.

In 2017, an untimely flood triggered by heavy rain in upstream India destroyed 90 percent of the summer rice in northeast Bangladesh.

Changing weather conditions have resulted in a drop in rice production in Bangladesh, where rice is a staple. 

“There is no doubt that we are heading toward dangerous times. I am scared to think about the situation in populous Bangladesh if rice production keeps dropping,” Rahman said.

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