Worsening sea water storm surges and overuse of irrigation have left fields, wells and ponds in parts of southern Bangladesh too salty to grow crops, leading to a growing exodus of farmers from the region.
During Cyclones Sidr and Aila, in 2007 and 2009, sea water was driven into ponds and rivers in Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira districts in southern Bangladesh, and some fields remained flooded by sea water long enough to raise levels of salinity in the soil and in underground aquifers used for irrigation.
Now farmers on hundreds of thousands of acres in the region are watching their rice crops wither and die before reaching maturity. In some cases, farmers have sown rice plants several times in a season but seen none survive.
Binoy Singh, a farmer in Surigati village in Bagerhat district, recently lost nearly his entire 10-acre rice crop to salt contamination.
“The pond, the river and the groundwater contain excess salt. Salinity in the land has risen too much. The plants became red and dried up after some days of cultivation,” he said.
“Some two years back we were cultivating rice with water from the river and deep tube wells. But now the salinity of the water from these sources has gone above the permissible level for rice production,” he said.
Last year Singh got a ton of rice from his land. This year he may get less than a tenth of that amount.
“I am very much worried how I will feed my family members this year,” he said.
Worsening storm surges and sea level rise linked to climate change, as well as overuse of irrigation, threaten to make soil salinity a worsening problem across broad areas of southern Bangladesh, a vast and heavily populated river delta region that sits barely above sea level.
In the Tala, Debhata and Kaliganj sub-districts under Satkhira district, salinity in wells 70 to 80 feet deep is now 10 times higher than the tolerable limit for rice cultivation, researchers say.
That poses a grave threat to food security in southern Bangladesh, and is driving displacement as farmers migrate in search of other work to feed their families.
“This is really unfortunate for the people of that area who go hungry many days a year in the absence of food,” said M.A. Rashid, a scientist at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute in Dhaka.
Institute researchers are installing wells in some of the worst hit areas in an attempt to find out whether there is water suitable for irrigation still available deeper underground. In many areas, farmers now have to dig wells at least 500 feet deep to get water that is safe for irrigation. Earlier such water was available at 200 to 250 feet.
Now “water available at 200 to 250 feet deep is risky for irrigation. If rain water or fresh water is not supplied in the fields after cultivation, rice plants will die after a few days,” Rashid said.
Akmal Sheikh, Abdul Khaleq and Abul Kalam, farmers in Bagerhat district, said they are now losing a second season of crops to salt contamination.
“Last season we experienced a similar problem. We could not cultivate rice in all of our lands and got less output. This time, in the case of Boro rice (produced in the January to May season), the situation is disastrous. Almost all the plants died in the early stage,” they said.
The men said they had spent about $350 to cultivate each acre of land. Most of the farmers in the area depend on loans from private sources with a high rate of interest. Normally, they repay the loan after selling their crop. Those who lose their crops, however, usually have no choice but to sell some of their land to repay the loan.
As excessive salinity makes more crops fail, thousands of farmers are becoming landless and migrating elsewhere within or outside of Bangladesh, residents said. Many farmers tell of neighbours who have left for Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, or for neighbouring India over the last six months to a year.
Some have fled rather than face legal prosecution for failing to repay loans, or have spent time in local jails, Singh said.
Iftekhar Alam, an engineer and salinity expert with the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation, said excessive use of groundwater for irrigation is also driving the worsening salinity problem in the area.
Overuse of well water for irrigation, he said, is reducing the underground pressure that holds back sea water, allowing it to seep into aquifers.
“This movement of saline water into the mainland through the aquifer is increasing alarmingly. That is why the farmers are getting excess salt in the groundwater,” Alam said.
“Within the next few decades, major parts of the southern reaches of the Padma River may experience underground saltwater intrusion,” he warned.
His organization has so far installed 80 test wells across the country to better understand the reasons behind increasing salinity in groundwater.
Over the last 25 years, sea water from the Bay of Bengal has pushed 40 kilometres inland throughout underground aquifers, replacing fresh water, he said.
Source: Salt killing crops, driving migration in storm-hit southern Bangladesh – AlertNet
Date: 13 May 2010