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Climate change puts Bangladesh’s food security at stake

Prolonged hotter summer days and delayed monsoons negatively impact crop production, experts say
A farmer harvests rice in rural Bangladesh in this undated image. A new report on climate change impacts found bad weather events like prolonged summer and delayed monsoons are posing great challenges for the largely agricultural South Asian nation.

A farmer harvests rice in rural Bangladesh in this undated image. A new report on climate change impacts found bad weather events like prolonged summer and delayed monsoons are posing great challenges for the largely agricultural South Asian nation. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 02, 2024 04:17 AM GMT
Updated: March 02, 2024 04:39 AM GMT

Matiur Rahman has been forced to slash his annual rice cultivation almost by half due to low rainfall and lack of water for irrigation over the past fifteen years.

Rahman, 55, from Kurigram district in northern Bangladesh, used to grow paddy rice in about 70 percent of his 19.80 acres (8 hectares) of agricultural land when he inherited the family property in 2009.

“It was not a long time when my father used to cultivate entire land,” Rahman told UCA News.

Rise in production costs and loss of crops, mostly due to bad weather events like prolonged summer, successive droughts, and low and untimely rain, have forced many farmers like Rahman to move away from farming traditional crops like rice, the staple food in Bangladesh.   

“Rising production cost is pushing farmers to give up cultivation of rice,” he added.

The cost of agricultural cultivation increased partly because of soaring labor prices and partly because of weather changes, which means more irrigation and more nursing are required to sustain crops in warmer weather despite the risk of crop losses due to drought, heavy rains, and storms, he said.

“The winter is not cold anymore while summer gets hotter every year and rainfall decreases,” said Rahman, echoing problems faced by millions of farmers in the largely agrarian South Asian nation. 

Over the years, Rahman has leased out most of his land to local farmers, but there's little solace from the struggles they face in one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.

The rising challenges Bangladesh farmers have been facing in growing major crops like rice have been reflected in a new study released in the capital Dhaka on Feb. 27.

The study, Changing Climate of Bangladesh, jointly conducted by the Bangladesh Meteorological Department and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, considered data between 1980 and 2023 recorded in 35 weather stations.

It found the number of months with extremely hot days doubled since 2010 with the delayed onset of monsoon that triggered a negative shift in rainfall pattern in the country.

“This is highly alarming. Monsoon changing its pattern will bear consequences for agrarian Bangladesh,” said Bazlur Rashid, a Bangladeshi meteorologist and one of the authors of the study.

The research highlighted that Bangladesh faced its worst-ever challenge from monsoon growing hotter, leaving public health and agriculture exposed to prolonged heat stress.

Heat waves, which occur when days get as hot as 36 degrees Celsius or more, used to occur between March and May. Since 2010, such hot days have prevailed throughout the monsoon season from June to October, the study said.

The days in the first two weeks of June last year were hotter than 36C, a highly unusual phenomenon for the year’s wettest month, with the northern district of Rajshahi recording over 41 degrees Celsius for days.

Heat waves occurred even in November, particularly in Rajshahi after 2007.

“Monsoon days growing hotter underscores a negative shift in rainfall pattern,” said Rashid.

The change in weather is alarming for Bangladesh's agriculture sector. About 45 percent of the labor force of the nation’s more than 170 million people are employed in agriculture, according to the national labor force survey of 2022.

Experts say adequate rainfall is crucial for agriculture as well as for sustaining the world’s largest river delta system that flows through Bangladesh and empties into the Bay of Bengal. 

Monsoon, accounting for 80 percent of total annual rain, also helps keep sufficient soil moisture.

The supply of water is also crucial for plant growth for water constitutes 80 to 90 percent of most plant tissues, germinates seed, and conducts photosynthesis, agriculturists said.

The prolonged period of heat in Bangladesh covers Kharif, the country’s major crop season, extending from May to October.

Many major crops from cereal to vegetables to fruits are grown in this season.

“Bangladesh’s second most important crop aman rice comes from this season,” said Delwar Hossain, who teaches agronomy at Bangladesh Agricultural University.

Aman meets about 40 percent of the country’s annual demand for rice.

The third major rice crop aush is also grown in time.

Data preserved by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute revealed that the cultivation of aman reduced to 5.720 million hectares in 2021-22 from 7.184 million hectares in 1971-72.

The cultivation area of aush dropped to 1.159 million hectares in 2021-22 from three million hectares in 1971-72.

The overall production of rice, however, still increased because of technological development. But their overall production has come to a saturation point. 

Jute is another major crop grown in the prolonged hot season. Last year an unprecedented dry condition destroyed jute fiber quality forcing farmers to create artificial ponds for rotting their jute. 

Other major crops grown in the Kharif season included cereals such as millet and sorghum, tuber and root crops such as painkachu, oilseeds such as sesame, pulses such as mungbean, many summer vegetables, spices, sugarcane, tea and fruits.

Many of these crops are produced far less than needed and need to be imported. A decline in their production means a fresh economic blow for the country already struggling due to a shortage in US dollar reserves and a staggering economy fueled by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.

“It seems Bangladesh needs to review its crop calendar,” said Moshiur Rahman, an agronomy teacher at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, adding that technologies are there to cope with the situation. 

In the monsoon season, the minimum and maximum temperatures have increased uniformly in the whole country, the newly released report said, adding that the maximum temperatures have increased more rapidly than the minimum temperatures have done.

The number of hot days increased in pre-monsoon months while cold waves reduced, said the report. 

Although the report found that the overall rainfall amount remained more or less unchanged, the onset of monsoon was delayed over the last decade.

The monsoon started after June 17 four times in the decade 2010-2020. Four such delayed monsoons were recorded in the previous 30 years.

“This is happening. This is drastically happening. Heat waves spreading into monsoon sound dangerous,” said Hans Olav Hygen, head of the climate division at Met Norway, while launching the report.

“We are looking at a hot future. And less precipitation could prove to be a big deal for Bangladesh’s agriculture,” he said.

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