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Salt surge puts crops in peril

Rising sea levels cause the Bay of Bengal to encroach on fresh water aquifers, with dire consequences for food production.

KHAJURA, BANGLADESH // In this obscure village perched on the rugged coastline along the Bay of Bengal, climate change exudes a taste - the taste of salt. As recently as five years ago, water from the village well tasted sweet to Mohammed Jehangir. But now a glassful, flecked with tiny white crystals, tastes of brine. Like other paddy farmers in this southern village, Mr Jehangir is baffled by the change. But international scientists are not surprised as global warming causes sea levels to rise.

It is a sign that the brackish water from the Bay of Bengal is encroaching, surging up Bangladesh's freshwater rivers, percolating deep into the soil, fouling ponds and the underground water supply that millions depend on to drink and to cultivate their farms. Salt is slowly making its way to the rice paddies of farmers like Mr Jehangir, destroying their only source of income. "These white particles severely impede rice productivity," he said, darting his finger at a patch of mud covered in traces of white.

"Paddy husks take on an abnormal red colouration before drying and wilting away", he said. "The poor quality of rice doesn't sell much. It's becoming increasingly difficult to feed my family." Khajura is on the front lines of climate change, and some of the poorest of the world's poor are feeling the consequences of the fossil-fuel emissions by industrialised nations half a world away. There is little chance of, literally, turning back the tide. So the implications are dire for many millions living in here and for others in low-lying areas around the world.

Bangladesh tops the 2009 Global Climate Risk Index, a rating of 170 countries most vulnerable to climate change complied by Germanwatch, an international non-governmental organisation. The nation is particularly at risk because it is a vast delta plain with 230 small and large rivers, many of which swell during the monsoon rains. This, combined with water from the melting Himalayan mountain glaciers in the north, and an encroaching Bay of Bengal in the south, makes the region prone to floods and the effects of intense storms that are also seen as a marker of climate stresses.

Calamities like Cyclone Sidr - the category four tropical storm that ravaged southern Bangladesh in November 2007, killing about 3,500 people and displacing two million - have wiped out homes and paddy fields. The cyclone was followed by two heavier-than-normal floods that killed some 1,500 people and damaged about two million tonnes of food. The United Nations warns that one-quarter of Bangladesh's coastline could be inundated if the sea rises one metre in the next 50 years, displacing 30 million Bangladeshis from their homes and farms. If that happens, the capital, Dhaka, now at the centre of the country, would have its own sea promenade.

But beyond the long-term peril, an immediate threat comes from soil salinity that jeopardises food output in Bangladesh, a country where 40 per cent of its 150 million people live below the poverty line. In the past few years, due to rising soil salinity, Mr Jehangir has begun noticing a white film of salt that envelopes his paddy farm. To boost his declining income, he may follow the example of many of his neighbours who switched to shrimp farming, making money from the salty water awash over Khajura's fields.

In an occupational shift, shrimp farming is becoming more popular than cultivation. But this has come with its own share of problems. Because it is less labour-intensive, shrimp farming has contributed to unemployment, compelling some residents to migrate to cities. Recognising the plight of farmers, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has increased research on salinity issues. "This is a growing problem in Bangladesh, as one million hectares of land is affected by salinity," said Mohammed Firoze Shah Sikder, BRRI's executive director. "This is severely affecting crop production."

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the production of staple foods could drop steeply by 2050 due to soil salinity. This would be devastating in a country where agriculture is the key economic driver. This sector accounts for about 22 per cent of the nation's economic output, with another 33 per cent derived from the rural non-farm economy, which is also linked to agriculture, according to the World Bank. About 65 per cent of the population is employed in agriculture.

BRRI is working on developing a management technology to capture freshwater during the monsoon season, when soil salinity is less prevalent, to be used for irrigating rice in the winter. But with soil salinity spreading quickly, experts say the key to survival lies in developing "climate-resistant agriculture". BRRI has been working on developing salt-tolerant strains of food crops, especially rice. For Bangladesh's wet season, when rice is grown under rain-fed conditions, BRRI has developed rice varieties which withstand low to moderate level of salinity.

For the dry season, when rice cultivation needs irrigation, BRRI has only managed to develop one salt-tolerant variety. Scientists from BRRI are also striving to breed Saltol - a gene on the rice chromosome that confers salinity tolerance at the seedling stage - into different varieties of rice. Mr Sikder said he was exploring the potential for growing non-rice crops adaptable to saline conditions.

But if Bangladesh has to feed its teeming millions, BRRI acknowledges it has to do more. It needs more resources to pump into agricultural research. Mr Jehangir, 62, a father of six, like most subsistence farmers in Khajura, does not puzzle over lofty concepts like carbon footprints or the greenhouse effect. But he is perceptive to the environmental changes. His paddy yields are rapidly shrinking. The little he produces, being low-quality, is not worth much in the market.

Twenty-six people died in Khajura when Sidr struck in 2007, four of them his relatives. The unforgiving floods that followed swallowed his house. Thrown by one environmental calamity after another, he ascribes his misfortune to God's retribution for his impiety. "Maybe we are cursed," he said. They are also bearing the toll for the damage caused by developed countries, added Tanjir Hossain, a livelihood security specialist with Action Aid, an international aid organisation.

"These poor people," he said, "have not created the greenhouse gases that bring them so much misfortune." achopra@thenational.ae

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