Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN)-Such large areas of fertile lands are left fallow in spite of ample water available right there in the channels near the farms,” exclaimed Prof M Abdul Halim Khan in disbelief during our journey in mid-April to Patuakhali and Barguna.
We were taking a trip to his agricultural research sites in the coastal region of Bangladesh.
Agriculture is one of the most important sectors of Bangladesh and its performance has tremendous impacts on poverty reduction, food security as well as overall economic development of the country.
This is especially true for people in the coastal areas – mostly small rice farmers whose livelihood depend on the production of rice and other crops.
Despite that, most of the farm lands in the coastal areas remain unused in the dry season for as long as 6 months a year.
The main causes of such underutilisation of lands include: seasonal natural calamities such as cyclone and tidal surges as well as rising water salinity.
There are two peak season for the formation of tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; one in May and another in November, said a World Bank report.
Likewise, salinity in drinking and irrigation water peaks from April to May.
As a result, farming in the coastal areas is largely constrained to mono-cropping while double or triple cropping are common practices in other parts of Bangladesh.
To address this issue, Prof Halim – a prominent professor at the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) – launched a research project, “Strengthening Postgraduate Research Capability and Adaptation of Climate Resilient Cropping System in Vulnerable Coastal Region”, with funding of Taka 23 million (US$ 280,000) from the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) program under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP).
As part of his research project, Prof Halim and his three PhD students are experimenting with introduction of short-duration, high-yielding and photo-insensitive rice varieties in the coastal areas.
The goal is to increase per hectare yield and shift to double cropping.
Local farmers applied the new method in their own farms after receiving training, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigations from the project. Farmers in the coastal areas commonly cultivate a low-yielding traditional rice variety that takes about 150 days to grow, whereas the short-duration varieties take only about 120 days, which reduces cultivation period by about 1 month.
This reduction of 1 month enabled the farmers to harvest short-duration rice safely before the peak times of cyclone and water salinity. It also allowed them to grow other crops like maize and sunflowers to diversify their products.
The short-duration rice varieties were originally developed elsewhere in Bangladesh to solve post-flood crop damage problems.
Some of these varieties appeared to be moderately salt tolerant too.
Now, Prof Halim’s research project is attempting to adapt this short-duration variety technology to solve the problems in the coastal areas.
The research has proven to be extremely successful.
Prof Halim explained how at the beginning they were not certain if the new approach would work, and farmers were not convinced either.
But now, looking at the results of the research project, everyone is convinced of the benefits for the farmers of the coastal areas.
Said Prof Halim: “Look our fields – the crops are all ready to be harvested; some have already been harvested. But, in other fields, farmers are growing crops but they are still in vegetative period and cannot be harvested until May. Cyclones may come in May and water salinity is already high. Yields of our farms have also been very promising. In our research farms, we have a per hectare yield of 7 tons that is twice as much the normal yield of the traditional rice, 3.5 tons per hectare. The farmers are so happy and proud!"
The success of his research project has brought to light one important challenge and opportunity for AIF.
AIF is designed to support universities in research and institutional development, and it had limited capacity to assist scaling up of successful research outcomes like this one. Under the third round of AIF, additional support will be provided for the establishment of Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) at interested universities. Going forward, TTOs could play an active role in partnership building between university researchers and relevant institutions.
Prof Halim’s research is still on-going with the addition of another research site in July.
The Ministry of Agriculture has been informed of his project’s achievement.
Prof Halim is hopeful that his team will find good partners to expand the achievements of the research project throughout the coastal areas and boost agricultural production by turning tens of thousands of hectares of fallow lands to productive rice fields.