James Walsh is an Assistant Director, Outreach, ACIAR.
I am standing in a field in Dacope, Khulna, South Bangladesh. Beneath me rows of potatoes are growing in abundance, the field is irrigated, and straw has been placed along the rows of potatoes. There are farmers dressed in vibrant saris (traditional dress for women) tending to the potatoes. A short distance down the road is another field. Here the land is fallow. The soil is dry with cracks forming across it. No one is tending to the field. It is February - the dry season - and this has been a common sight in Dacope at this time of year.
For the past 15 years, ACIAR-supported research has been investigating how science-led interventions can provide opportunities for farmers in this region to produce successful dry season crops despite the challenges of salinity and irrigation.
Dr Mohammed Mainuddin is a Principal Research Scientist from CSIRO and the Project Leader for an ACIAR project intensifying cropping systems in the salt-affected coastal zones of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. He describes agriculture in Dacope when he first started working there.
‘When we started this project in early 2016, the area that we are working was mostly a monocrop region. That is, they could grow only one crop in the monsoon season.’
‘After that, the land lays fallow because they did not have available water for irrigation and there was salinity in the soil.’
I look from the fallow field back to the one I am standing in. The contrast between the green rows of potatoes and the fallow field is stark. This stark difference is what I am in Bangladesh for: to learn about the ACIAR-led interventions that are enabling farmers to grow crops during a season when it has historically been very difficult.
The challenge of growing crops during the dry season has dramatic implications for the people of saline Southern Bangladesh and in the neighbouring region of West Bengal, India. Agriculture is one of the main sources of income for people in these regions. Here, many struggle to access suitable quantities of nutritious food. Dr Mainuddin explains how low cropping intensity impacted on the livelihood of the people in the region.
‘Because they were only cropping rice, their economic condition was poor. If we look at the statistics, approximately 65% of the people were living below the poverty line. They had limited access to nutritious food, health care and limited livelihood opportunities.’
In recent years, the challenges of food production have been exacerbated by the impacts of sea level rise. Rising sea levels have contributed to increasing regularity of catastrophic floods, which can wipe out whole crops, as well as homes and infrastructure. Increasing flooding frequency highlights the imperative to find productivity during the dry season.
I squat down and dig up a potato from the soil. These potatoes represent one of the burgeoning agricultural opportunities in the region. Although farmers had already been growing potatoes in the other regions of Bangladesh, it had not been possible in the saline coastal region. Dr Mainuddin explains,
‘Australian research is particularly strong in this field of dealing with saline soil. There is a high incidence of saline land and saline cropping in Australia. CSIRO has a very strong capacity in that area in terms of soil, water and agronomic management.’
‘At CSIRO we have the right capacity and expertise in terms of crop and economic management, also the water management and soil and groundwater modelling.’
An ACIAR scoping study in 2011 showed that approximately 800,000ha was left fallow in the dry season each year. Subsequent workshops in 2014 and 2015 confirmed soil and water salinity and limited irrigation water under the existing management regimes.
The project identified opportunities to increase cropping intensity by improving soil and water management, as well as increasing the availability of salt tolerant crops. Study sites were identified in Amtali, Borguna, in Dacope, Khulna and in the district of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal.
Initially, there was low confidence among local stakeholders that the proposed interventions would be successful.
‘When we started in that area, we faced resistance from our partner organisations. They thought it was not possible to grow anything.’
‘But still we took the challenge. We knew if we failed, that would still be good research.’
The team proceeded and within a few years, the results were tangible. ACIAR Research Program Manager, Water, Dr Neil Lazarow describes the range of crops that have been successfully introduced in the region.
‘A key focus of this project has been looking at opportunities to introduce salt tolerant varieties of rice, and we've trailed several varieties to work out what's best, as well as salt tolerant varieties of fruit and veggies, including watermelon, potato and garlic.’
The trials revealed several new high-yielding and short-duration varieties of rice. In Bangladesh rice varieties such as BRRI dhan87, BRRI dhan77 and BRRI dhan76 were successfully trialled during the Kharif (monsoon) or Aman season. In West Bengal Pratikshya was found suitable, profitable and preferred by the farmers. The yield of these varieties was 0.5 to 1.0 t/ha higher than existing varieties, and 15-20 days shorter in duration. This facilitates early sowing of Rabi crops and provides more than 50% higher net benefit.
During the Rabi season in Bangladesh BRRI dhan67 was found to be salt-tolerant and high-yielding. This is an important development outcome as Boro rice was not grown in the project region prior to this project.
The trials also revealed potato varieties that are suitable to saline conditions. In Bangladesh BARI Alo72 was found to be suitable whereas Kufri Pukhraj was found to be suitable in West Bengal. Though the average yields achieved were lower than in the non-saline region, the net benefit was much higher due to very low cost of production.
The success of the trails was evident to farmers in the region, who became interested in participating.
‘The number of farmers is increasing every year. They are looking at the benefit they are seeing in the fields. They are coming forward to us because they want to participate in the program. They ask, “Can you give us seed? Can you give us other technical advice?”’
Increased cropping intensity has introduced new challenges, such as seed storage. Solving these challenges is the next step for the project.
'There are risks related to the marketing of the crops because potato is traditionally not grown in that area. Now many farmers are growing them.
'We need to find a good market for them so that they can maximise profits.'
I had come to Dacope to learn about the agricultural interventions that were allowing farmers to intensify their cropping. Finding markets for these crops will provide opportunities for the populations of climate-vulnerable people in Southern Bangladesh and West Bengal to improve livelihoods and increase their resilience to climate change.
The project has been running for 8 years and is due to be completed in late 2024. The total value of the project is AUD$5.92M ($5.23M from ACIAR and the balance from the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation of Bangladesh). At the mid-term review later this year the team will discuss pathways for extension and consider opportunities to extend some aspects of the work.
Visit the ACIAR project page for more information.