Soil and water has drastically changed at the entire southern region of Bangladesh after the devastating cyclones, Sidr and Aila. Salinity has increased in the soil. The Aila affected farmers in Satkhira's Shyamnagar are cultivating paddies in a changed agricultural setting. I could only see the images of despair.
With their own efforts and preserving of local rice varieties, farmers tried to move forward towards the southern region. Farmers' observation was that their local ancient rice varieties are more saline tolerant than the newly invented ones by the scientists at field level. For their survival, they had to depend on their indigenous perseverance.
Farmers who are working for their own survival, I had to talk with them because salinity is the biggest curse and impediment at the southern part of Bangladesh, especially where Aila shattered almost everything, principally the biodiversity. I found some farmers and had a little chat with them.
“What are the basic production differences between the present varieties invented by scientists and the ancient local varieties?”
“We get good produce from BR-23 variety, at least around 14-15 maunds. But, the region where it didn't work, the whole lot went in vain. There only the local varieties survived.”
I could see the horrible effect of salinity with my own eyes. The land has so many cracks and over each slice of it, there are countless holes. Farmers expect a particular rice variety which will survive even in extreme saline water and soil conditions.
According to SRDI, IRRI and BRRI, Bangladesh has a total 1.5 million hectares of saline land. Among these lands, the salinity level in nearly 0.8 million hectares is below 10 dS/m. Though at farm level, farmers have received varieties which can stand below 10 dS/m, but the results were not that impressive. Elsewhere, more than 0.3 million hectares of saline land is still deprived of cultivating rice. The situation is getting worse every day. A large area is being affected by water-logging and salinity. Let us try to find out where our scientists are heading with their research. I talked with the BRRI Scientist Dr. Ekhlasur Rahman regarding the issue.
“Only the salt loving plants, mangrove and halophytes, could be grown here. We are running a research project, funded by the GoB and WB through BARC and it's been over a year.”
“On saline and submergence tolerance rice varieties?
“Yes, we are trying to produce one unique variety for saline and submergence tolerance varieties, by pyramiding. We are also trying to promote sunflower cultivation in our country for two purposes: one is reclamation of the land which will reduce the salinity. By reducing the salinity, we can also cut the import of soybeans”, added Dr. Rahman.
Dr. Ekhlasur Rahman was referring to sunflower cultivation at the saline regions. In Barguna district, sunflower is occasionally cultivated. However, the coastal regions of India have moved ahead quite impressively, especially at the Aila affected regions on their part. I have talked with Professor A. M. Puste from Faculty of Agronomy, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya in West Bengal regarding this issue.
“Huge areas of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore were 'Touchy Area', as we term it. Now the scenario has changed gradually. We have done a research on sunflower. It's such a crop which you can cultivate in up to pH 8.5 conditions. The oil percentage is quite good. It has a good quality of oil, which is known as, 'PIFA'. Moreover, its market demand is great”, said Professor A.M. Puste.
Regarding the issues of salinity levels in India and in Bangladesh, I have also talked with scientists Dr Sunil Kumar Ambast and Dr. Buddeshwar Maji of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.
“Whatever the technologies which are developed at institute level, we take those to farm level”, said Dr. Buddeshwar Maji.
“We have some technologies for preserving the freshwater so that we can use it during the Rabi season farming. We can also reduce salinity through this”, said Dr. Sunil.
I came to know that the middle class families are living a critical life in Koyra. They don't get relief, they can't beg, or work as day-labourer. It's pretty tough to find them. They don't come forward to give interviews. It's been three and half years after Aila, but we couldn't find a single man or woman who said there's been development in the region. Everyone says, “In the past, we were far better”. Their life is much more critical now than what it was before Aila. I talked with a local farmer about whether he has seen any developments at their region since Aila had struck.
“Tell me, how's everything going now?”
“As the saline water came through the sluice gates, we couldn't cultivate paddies. After the monsoon, all the crops were submerged under water. There is no way that we can remove the water”
“So, has there been any development after Aila”, I asked
“If we could get the saline water out of the region, only then we could taste the changes”, said the local farmer.
Scarcity of drinking water at the coast belt of Khulna and Satkhira is simply a crisis. People have to walk seven to eight kilometres to fetch drinking water every day. I saw a woman carrying water on the pitcher. I had a little conversation with her. She was looking tired and helpless.
“How many pitchers of water do you bring every day?”
“Two to three.”
“How far do you need to go?”
“Far from here, beside the river”
“Is this tube-well water?”
“No, it's pond water, right beside the river”
I went to the Amtala village. There is no natural rural environment inside the village. People are struggling for survival. A young housewife, Mahfuza is growing basil on her home yard.
“Why are these leaves dying?”
“Due to the saline water.”
“How's the taste of it?”
“Salty” replied Mahfuza.
Not only in Amtala, but it's all the same in Moheswaripur, Bagali, Moharajpur, Madinabad, Uttor Betkashi, Dakshin Betkashi unions. You can easily read how distressed the families are, looking at the home yards.
Everyone here carry the miserable memory of Aila. The families which were thrashed in one night during the Aila strike, they couldn't stand back again.
Can we solely blame the nature for this disaster? Or, should we say, due to years of irresponsibility, these people are suffering? How much have we ourselves have moved towards these people to rescue them from the utter frustration? We talked with Abdul Aziz, Professor of Shaheb Komoruddin College.
“Even living in great barriers, we want a sluice gate which would extract the water and free the community from water logging and salt. Not only in this union, but in all the unions, the situation is all the same. Fresh drinking water is nowhere to be found here. Some NGOs have provided water-tanks but very insufficient for the people we have here”, said the Professor.
Later, when I returned, I gave the local saline-tolerant rice varieties to BRRI scientist, Dr. Rafiqul Islam, a specialist in saline-tolerant rice production for further research of its prospects.
“Definitely, we will see whether these varieties are saline-tolerant or not. The varieties which have better resistance, we'll go for cross-breeding”, firmly said Dr. Rafiqul.
Ministry of Agriculture has informed me about their initiatives regarding saline-tolerant rice varieties at the saline-affected regions.
“We have already released three saline-tolerant rice varieties for Boro cultivation- BR 47, Bina 8, 10. These three varieties could be cultivated during Boro season at the south belt”, said Anwar Faruque, DG of the Seed Wing, ministry of Agriculture.
“We can't cultivate these varieties in extreme salinity but we can do it in areas where the salinity level is 8-10 dS/m. For the Aman cultivation we have already released two salt-tolerant varieties”, added Mr. Anwar Faruque.
It also has the resistance as per the regional characteristics. These varieties are becoming popular. For the expansion, they have produced sufficient seeds. They have two schemes: selling directly to the farmers and FAO is also distributing these seeds among them. Through the FTF programme of IRRI, the seeds are being distributed to the farmers for free. They are establishing a Seed Multiplication Farm at the south in Patuakhali with the assistance of BADC.
Dear readers, many of you probably know that to develop this devastated region, many initiatives have been taken so far. And, thousands of dollars have been spent under many projects. But, the people who are sufferers, they still are suffering.
To bring back the natural farming system, infrastructure and natural lifestyle, there should be some realistic measures. It is very urgent to identify the real demand and crisis of the local people and take initiatives, accordingly. Through this process, people can get back their normal life. In this world of climate change and natural disasters, we have to save these communities, with all that we have or else sustainable development of Bangladesh will only remain in our dreams, not in the reality.
Photography by Srabon Reza
(R) thedailystar.net 2013