Salt-resistant paddy offers hope to farmers

A new salt-resistant paddy - BRRI Dhan 47 - is offering hope to coastal farmers in southern Bangladesh whose crops are affected by climate change, say experts.

Thousands of small-scale rice farmers have seen their livelihoods decimated due to the effects of climate change in the low-lying area.

“Fast-increasing soil salinity, especially in agricultural lands, is a major problem in Bangladesh,” Golam Mohammad Panaullah, director of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) in Dhaka, told IRIN.

Upwards of one million hectares of land have been seriously affected by salinity, he estimated.

“With soil salinity spreading fast, the key to survival lies in developing salt-resistant agriculture,” he said.

In recent decades, rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal have encroached on vast tracts of agricultural land in the south, undermining rice production, a staple part of the Bangladeshi diet.

Each year from November to May, a white film of salt envelops paddy fields in the 1,120km-long, mostly unprotected coastal belt in the south.

As a result, thousands of small scale farmers have leased their land to big shrimp farmers - the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner after ready-made garments - at throwaway prices, with many migrating to Dhaka to become day labourers, rickshaw drivers or beggars. 

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Farmers transplanting salt-resistant paddy in Sarankhola sub-district of coastal Bagerhat District in the southwest of the country

“A large portion of the saline water is nothing but the tears of the poor farmers who have been compelled to forego their paddy fields,” BRRI’s Panaullah said.

Years in the making

BRRI has been working on salt-resistant strains of food crops, particularly rice, for more than 30 years, with BRRI Dhan 47’s development beginning in 1998.

Created at BRRI’s Satkhira regional office, BRRI Dhan 47 can grow in moderately saline water.

Salinity units are expressed as deci-Siemens per metre (dS/m). According to Abdus Salam, BRRI’s director of research, the plant can withstand 12-14 dS/m of land while they are tender, and 6 dS/m in their entire lifespan of 152-155 days.

Salt tolerance capacities of other conventional high-yielding rice varieties are below 4 dS/m.

Moreover, farmers can grow it in their own shrimp enclosures, allowing them to increase their earnings.

First released by the country’s National Seed Board in 2007, BRRI Dhan-47 rice can now be found in a growing number of coastal community markets at the same price as conventional rice, or around 50 US cents per kilo.

Promising yields

This year, two tons of BRRI Dhan-47 seed have already been distributed for free among farmers in Debhata, Kaliganj, Asassuni, Shyamnagar, Tala and Sadar sub-districts in Satkhira District; Morrelganj and Sharankhola sub-districts in Bagerhat District; and Paikgachha and Koira sub-districts of Khulna District. 

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Workers in a paddy field in Patuakhali District southern Bangladesh. Rice is a staple part of the country's diet

The paddy was sown on about 150 hectares in the saline water of shrimp enclosures in the Satkhira and Khulna coastal belt, which were earlier used for shrimp cultivation only. The expected yield is 6-7 tons per hectare or around the same as regular rice.

Adding to its advantages, the rice can also be cultivated in fresh water.

“BRRI Dhan-47 is our shield against increasing soil salinity in Bangladesh,” said Guru Pada Karmakar of the country’s Agriculture Extension Department (AED).

“The yield is very encouraging and we hope the paddy will greatly benefit coastal farmers who had lost all hopes of survival in the recent past. Now they will have both rice and shrimps. The curse has turned into [a] boon for them,” he said.

Bangladesh is one the countries most at risk from the effects of climate change in the world today, say experts.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bangladesh is slated to lose the largest amount of cultivated land globally due to rising sea levels. A 1m rise in sea levels would inundate 20 percent of the country’s landmass.

Within the next 50 years, over 20 million people could be displaced and become “climate change refugees” if sea and salinity levels rise in Bangladesh, according to the government’s 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan.