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The brackish water coastal zone of the Ganges Delta is home to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, whose livelihoods are exposed to tidal surges, increasing surface water salinity and a rising incidence of severe cyclonic storms.

The CPWF Ganges Basin Development Challenge (GBDC) aims to improve the livelihoods of Ganges coastal zone farmers in Bangladesh and West Bengal India. Its five projects focus on areas where there is already some level of water control, especially within the polders of Bangladesh, but also extending to sites outside of polders in India. The goal is to reduce poverty and improve livelihood resilience by better utilizing the brackish water of the coastal Ganges – through improved water governance and management and by intensifying and diversifying agricultural and aquaculture systems.

The GBDC’s G2 project is focused around improving the profitability and productivity of agricultural systems in the Ganges basin in Bangladesh, while making them more resilient to climate change and the natural disasters that frequent the coastal regions. The objective of the G2 project is to develop and introduce resilient agriculture/aquaculture production systems in the coastal zone for the benefit of small farm households.

Previous research has indicated that agriculture and aquaculture production in the brackish water coastal zone can be further intensified and diversified. This project is augmenting previous endeavors in looking at cropping intensification and diversification as means to improve people’s livelihoods in the coastal zones of the Ganges (see Phase 1 projects SG508, SG507 and PN10).

The coastal region is particularly prone to natural disasters and high salinity. As explained by Dr Manoranjam Mandul, IRRI research scientist, “In the coastal region the cropping intensity is low, the use of crop varieties is traditional, so there is a chance to increase the productivity from this region.”

The high salinity causes problems for the production of the most commonly consumed food in South Asia – rice. “Rice is fundamental for food security, it’s the main component in the people’s diet, and if they can’t grow it they have to buy it. There’s a deficit in rice production in the coastal region,” says Dr Liz Humphreys, G2 project leader. She adds, “There are now improved rice varieties that can double the yields that farmers presently get with their local varieties. They have tolerance to prolonged periods of deep water and to high salinity. The issues are different in different parts of the coastal regions, but in some places we need tolerance to both of those problems.”

Manoranjam explains: “We need year-round production because we know that our land is scarce so we cannot afford to leave land fallow in any season if it usable.”

To see the progress of the G2 research sites, a team composed of scientists and professionals from GBDC Projects G1 through G5 visited polder 30 located in Batiaghata, Khulna, Bangladesh. This low-lying tract of land enclosed by embankments is characterized as a medium to high salinity area, a level more  hazardous than that of another CPWF research polder, 43/2F.

The soils in the coastal zone are prone to high levels of salinity. Farmers there have traditionally shied away from growing rice due to the inability to yield a worthwhile harvest, and have focused primarily on shrimp and brackish water aquaculture. But rice is fundamental for farmers’ food security, and the team in project G2 has successfully demonstrated improved rice varieties that can double the yields that farmers currently gain with their local varieties.

Rice and rabi (seasame, mungbean) crops performed poorly in polder 30, due to higher salinity levels in both soil and water as compared to polder 43/2F. Excess soil moisture constrained timely establishment of rabi crops as well. Cold injury in rice was prominent in this site when rice was planted early (November 10th). Early rice planting is necessary to combat the dual challenges of high water salinity and shortage of irrigation water.

The team visited multiple sites within polder 30, including water-logged areas and a CPWF Innovation Fund-supported research project. Meetings were held with farmers to discuss how drainage could be improved in order to adopt high yielding variety (HYV) rice in the wet season for higher productivity and to establish rabi crops early enough to reduce the risk of crop damage due to rainfall at the later stage of crop growth. (Early crop establishment will result in early harvest, prior to the heavy rains.)

If successful, the G2 will support the following activities:

  • Validate new germplasm and establish a seed distribution network;
  • Develop more productive, profitable, resilient and diversified rice-based cropping systems;
  • Improve homestead production systems;
  • Establish brackish water aquatic production systems; and
  • Provide technology and policy recommendations for up- and out-scaling.