South Asia

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Regional summary

While there are common challenges and opportunities in agriculture in the countries of South Asia, there are also fundamental differences between and within these countries in terms of the broad characteristics that influence the nature and success of agriculture.

The population of countries in the region ranges from 21.4 million in Sri Lanka to 1.3 billion in India. Land area ranges from 6.6 million hectares in Sri Lanka to 329 million hectares in India. The northern hilly region of Bangladesh is geographically distinct from the southern coastal areas. India is divided into 15 distinct agroecological zones. Nepal has three distinct topographical zones: the mountainous Himalayan region of the north, the Hill region and the low-lying land of the Terai region in the south. Bangladesh is a small country that is mostly alluvial, with fertile floodplains associated with three major rivers. Pakistan’s Indus plains are in sharp contrast to the arid regions of Sindh and the hilly and semi-arid areas of the north-west. Sri Lanka’s landscape is clearly defined by its dry and wet zones. The regional variations throughout South Asia must be taken into account when designing a meaningful program for research collaboration to accommodate regional distinctions and varying degrees of vulnerability of the local population.

South Asia has the highest concentration of poor people in the world. More than 500 million people live in extreme poverty. Many more people, particularly women, live marginally above the poverty line but do not have the opportunity to participate in the process of economic growth. Compared with other regions in the world, South Asia has the highest regional Global Hunger Index and a very low Human Development Index. Half of the total population of 1.5 billion depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Although the share of agriculture in rural employment remains high, growth of the rural non-farm sector is accelerating and now provides a sizable share of rural income and employment, primarily in services. The rural non-farm sector has grown more quickly than agricultural employment in recent years and now generates about 60% of rural income in India and Nepal and 57% in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Malnutrition is prevalent in South Asia. The region has among the highest burdens of child undernutrition in the world. Thirty-six per cent of children under age five are stunted, or too short for their age, which is an indicator of chronic undernutrition. Sixteen per cent are wasted, or too thin for their height, an indicator of acute malnutrition. South Asia also has a high prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies, overconsumption and diet-related non-communicable disease.

The frequency of climate-related disasters and the damage they cause is rising in the region, negatively affecting food security and nutrition. Despite these many challenges, South Asia remains the fastest growing region in the world as its economic growth strengthens. However, growth rates vary greatly across the region—exceeding 7.0% in Bangladesh, India and Nepal and reaching 5.8% in Pakistan. Growth in most South Asian nations was driven primarily by domestic consumption, with limited contributions from exports and investments.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for South Asia. Large and dense populations make social distancing difficult. Agriculture is highly dependent on informal labour, which is severely limited during lockdowns and restricted by social-distancing measures. These are all disruptive factors for supply chains and agriculture markets.

Countries in the ACIAR South Asia region

  • Bangladesh
  • India
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka

Drivers of regional collaboration

Countries in South Asia share many opportunities and threats that drive the need for regional cooperation, especially in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. Rice and wheat are the region’s major staple crops, accounting for about two-thirds of total dietary energy. However, food consumption patterns have changed in the region over the past few decades, and the changes are most apparent in rural areas. Consumption of cereals is declining while consumption of animal-sourced foods, fruits, vegetables and processed foods is increasing. Pressure to expand food production to meet growing demand is putting stress on natural resources. The resulting expansion and intensification of agriculture are leading to land degradation, deterioration of soil quality and loss of biodiversity, potentially jeopardising the region’s capacity to meet future food demand.

Agricultural growth also poses risks for water resources. Facing the world’s lowest per capita renewable freshwater resources, millions of rural people in South Asia have benefited from the growing use of groundwater. But aquifers are being depleted and the watertable is falling, particularly in India. Water quality is also deteriorating throughout the region due to nutrient overloads and industrial pollution, raising concerns about food safety and drinking water quality.

Large areas in several countries of South Asia are prone to natural disasters. Bangladesh and coastal parts of India are threatened frequently by cyclones and floods. Recurring droughts are a common feature in the arid and semi-arid parts of India and Pakistan. The impact of natural calamities is most severe on food insecure households. Governments must allocate and provide significant resources to cope with frequent natural disasters.

Climate variability, competing and increasing demands from agriculture and industry (including energy production) and population growth are creating very severe demands on water availability. Regional cooperation is increasingly essential to manage these shared resources. There are also significant opportunities in regional cooperation to improve the productivity and diversification of agricultural crops, especially beyond cereals, and to improve the sustainability of farming systems through technical, institutional, value-chain and policy research and development.

ACIAR program in the region

Australian agricultural and resource management expertise is highly regarded in the South Asia region. ACIAR has a long history of research collaboration in improving crop productivity, forestry, water use efficiency and policy reforms. The South Asia regional program of the Australian Government seeks to underpin Australia’s economic engagement in the region by addressing some of the key region-wide barriers to sustainable economic growth and connectivity through the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP) and South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program. Gender equality is a focus in all the investments under the regional program.

The ACIAR regional strategy in South Asia focuses on communities, production systems and resource management in the three main ecosystems of the region—highlands, plains and coastal areas—that are common to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and
Sri Lanka.

Research in these areas looks to identify appropriate reform policy, increase adoption of technology (including post-harvest management), improve productivity and livelihoods in marginalised communities and improve productivity of crop, livestock, forestry and fisheries systems.

The major pathways of development in the region are modernisation of agrifood systems, technology support, strengthening service providers, developing rural non-farm sector and local governance at district and state level. Overproduction in some areas and unequal distribution networks due to poorly developed supply-chain management are the major issues in India, which could play a major role in achieving food and nutrition security and stability in the region.

The medium- to long-term strategy in the region focuses on creating regional collaborations that:

  • sustainably intensify and diversify cropping systems using conservation agriculture/zero tillage, farm mechanisation, saline land management and adaptation to climate change
  • eradicate extreme poverty through improved productivity of food-grain crops (especially wheat and pulses), livestock (in Pakistan), agroforestry (in Nepal) and fisheries (in Sri Lanka)
  • better manage agricultural water, including rainfed areas in the Eastern Gangetic Plains and coastal zone
  • influence policy about agricultural and farmers’ livelihoods and climate change
  • increase the emphasis on meaningful gender inclusion and empowerment.

During 2020–21, 32 ACIAR-supported projects will be active in the South Asia region (Table 5.3).

Table 5.3 Current and proposed projects in the South Asia region, 2020–21
Project title Project code Country

Policy and institutional reforms to improve horticultural markets in Pakistan


China, Pakistan

Developing competitive and inclusive value chains of pulses in Pakistan



Understanding the drivers of successful and inclusive rural regional transformation: sharing experiences and policy advice in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Pakistan


Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Pakistan


Incorporating salt-tolerant wheat and pulses into smallholder farming systems in southern Bangladesh



Establishing the International Mungbean Improvement Network


Bangladesh, India, Myanmar

Mitigating the effects of stripe rust on wheat production in South Asia and eastern Africa


Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Pakistan

Increasing productivity and profitability of pulse production in cereal based cropping systems in Pakistan



Improved mungbean harvesting and seed production systems for Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan


Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan

Identification of sources of resistance to wheat blast and their deployment in wheat varieties adapted to Bangladesh



Identifying soil constraints in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SDIP)


Bangladesh, India, Nepal

International Mungbean Improvement Network – phase 2


Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar

Sustainable and resilient farming systems intensification in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SRFSI) (SDIP)


Bangladesh, India, Nepal

Enhancing farm-household management decision-making for increased productivity in the Eastern Gangetic Plains


Bangladesh, India, Nepal


Improved productivity, efficiency and sustainability of the culture-based fishery for finfish and giant freshwater prawn in Sri Lankan reservoirs


Sri Lanka

Enhancing livelihoods through improved forest management in Nepal




Strengthening vegetable value chains in Pakistan for greater community livelihood benefits



Livestock Systems    

Improving smallholder dairy and beef profitability by enhancing farm production and value chain management in Pakistan



Enhancing small ruminant production to benefit farming families in Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan



Value-adding to existing livestock programs to understand and quantify the implications of greenhouse gas emissions, provide options for emissions reduction and inform in-country policy development


Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Africa, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Zambia


Promoting socially inclusive and sustainable agricultural intensification in West Bengal and Bangladesh


Bangladesh, India

Developing approaches to enhance farmer water management skills in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan



Improving groundwater management to enhance agriculture and farming livelihoods in Pakistan



Nutrient management for diversified cropping in Bangladesh



Adapting to salinity in the southern Indus Basin



Water management for smallholder farmers—outscaling ACIAR research in Andhra Pradesh drought mitigation program



Quantifying crop yield gaps across the Indo-Gangetic Plain from new perspectives—production, farmer profit and sustainability of water use (SDIP)


Bangladesh, India, Nepal

Aquifer characterisation, artificial recharge and reuse of suddenly available water in South Bihar (SDIP)



Building provincial capacity for sustainable agricultural mechanisation in Nepal (SDIP)



The implications of sustainable intensification on weed dynamics in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SDIP)


India, Nepal

Mitigating risk and scaling-out profitable cropping system intensification practices in the salt-affected coastal zones of the Ganges Delta


Bangladesh, India

Regional foresight for food systems in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SDIP)


Bangladesh, India, Nepal

Food futures for the food systems in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (SDIP)


Bangladesh, India, Nepal

Notes: More details (including project leader, commissioned organisation and partner organisations) are provided in the appendixes. The project list was compiled during July 2020. Additional projects, not listed in this table, may be commissioned during 2020–21.

Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio

The SDIP is an Australian Government initiative funded by DFAT that brings together partners in Australia and South Asia to improve integrated management of water, energy and food in three major Himalayan river basins—the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. The initiative includes eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. It draws on Australia’s expertise and technologies in the water, food and energy sectors.

The component of SDIP focused on food and agriculture is co-funded and coordinated by ACIAR. It aims to improve the integrated management of food, energy and water in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, which lie in the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins.

ACIAR supports 10 projects within the portfolio in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. These projects are managed by two ACIAR research programs: Crops and Water. Many of these projects are close to completion; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some may extend into the 2020–21 year for a short time.

SDIP projects in Bangladesh, India and Nepal

  • Sustainable and resilient farming system intensification (SRSFI) (CSE/2011/077)
  • Identifying Eastern Gangetic Plains soil constraints (CROP/2018/210)
  • Institutions to support intensification, integrated decision-making and inclusiveness in agriculture in the East Gangetic Plains (LWR/2018/104)
  • Quantifying crop yield gaps across the Indo–Gangetic Plains from new perspectives: production, farmer profit and sustainability of water use (WAC/2018/169)
  • The regional hydrological impact of farm-scale water saving measures in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2019/104)
  • Regional foresight for food systems in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2019/136)

SDIP project in India and Nepal

  • The implications of sustainable intensification on weed dynamics in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2018/211)

SDIP project in India

  • Aquifer characterisation, artificial recharge and reuse of suddenly available water in South Bihar, India (WAC/2018/211)

SDIP project in Nepal

  • Building provincial capacity for sustainable agricultural mechanisation in Nepal (WAC/2018/220)

SDIP project in Bangladesh

  • Pilot project on commercialisation of smallholder conservation-based planters in Bangladesh (LWR/2018/111)
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