"The fact is that the agriculture sector and food security could be severely affected," said Ad Spijkers, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representative in Bangladesh. Agriculture contributes 30 percent to the country's gross domestic product and employs roughly 63 percent of the labour force.
Bangladesh had made "tremendous" progress since the major droughts of 1973/74, 1978/79, 1981/82, 1989, 1992 and 1994/95, he said. In the 1978/79 drought the country lost probably 50 percent to 100 percent of its foodgrains - more than was lost in floods in 1974 - "showing that drought can be as devastating as a major flood or cyclone".
Since then the country has attained a certain level of sufficiency, said Spijkers, but population was a bigger problem than food production, inasmuch as food production was basically keeping pace with population growth.
Population densityis 900 persons/sq km, one of the highest in the world, according to the world's leading authority on rice production, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines.
Natural disasters have also played havoc with food production. The drought of 1994/95 in the northwestern districts of Bangladesh led to a 3.5 million tonne shortfall in rice and wheat production, prompting the FAO and the Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) to set up a pilot project in 2005 to formulate adaptation strategies to help farming communities cope.
In previous droughts the widespread human distress resulting from smaller crops, reduced employment and incomes, and higher food prices was considerable, said Sandeep Saha, the national lead consultant on the pilot project, called Livelihood Adaptation to Climate Change (LACC).
According to various forecasts, Bangladesh could experience a 1.0=BAC hike in temperature by 2030 and 1.4=BAC by 2050. "Though monsoon precipitation is likely to increase by 6.8 percent by 2050, the distribution patterns of precipitation during the growing season, high temperature and higher rates of evapotranspiration [greater water loss by plants] will create further water-stress conditions and a decline in agricultural production in the drought-prone areas," said a training manual on the project written by the ADPC's Ramamasy Selvaraju and the FAO's Stephan Bass.
The project focused on drought-prone districts in the High Barind Tract of northwest Bangladesh. "The rainfall pattern for the Barind Tract shows lower than normal monsoon season rainfall in 1985, '88, '89, '92, '93, '94, '95, '96, 2001 and 2002. Below-normal rainfall, associated with long dry spells through the season, is critical, as climate change may bring more intermittent dry spells during the growing season," Selvaraju and Bass noted.
Local communities in the pilot project said the climate was behaving differently than it had in the past and reported more frequent droughts, shorter winters, long dry spells and unseasonal rainfall. They also told researchers that fishing as a livelihood had been reduced substantially and there was insufficient water in the traditional ponds.
Besides rice crop losses, households reported that extreme heat and lack of moisture was damaging the cultivation of bananas, mangos, bamboo and jackfruit.
The IRRI pointed out that most farmers in the area produced one rice crop, grown in the monsoon season, unlike areas where irrigation could allow farmers to grow two or three rice crops every year. The challenge was to get the farmers to use harvested rainwater to grow rice in the drier months, growing drought-resistant rice varieties, diversifying their crops, and adopting intercropping technologies, said the LACC's Saha.
An intercropping technology developed jointly by the Bangladesh Sericulture Research and Training Institute, and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, recommends the cultivation of rice, wheat, garlic, mustard, chickpeas and mung beans in mulberry fields. The cropping pattern calls for growing rice in the monsoon season, with wheat, mustard, garlic and chickpeas in winter, and mung bean in the pre-kharif season - the summer crop grown ahead of the monsoon season.
Farmers have also been encouraged to diversify into growing mulberry, which is grown mainly to rear silk worms and does well in drought conditions. Sericulture, or silk production, is a labour-intensive industry that can provide a source of income to both male and female members of the household.
Another adaptation strategy is the excavation of miniponds, filled with water harvested during the rains, to rear fast-growing fish varieties as an alternative source of income.
The pilot project has helped 4,000 farmers so far, said Saha. "We have seen some improvement in the lives of the farmers, but the process of getting farmers to take up new adaptation strategies is slow - its takes time; we have to be patient."
The FAO hopes to scale up the project in 2009 and expand it into the coastal areas of the southeast.