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Weaving resilience: addressing climate vulnerabilities of the cotton value chain in Bangladesh

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The Government of Bangladesh is climate proofing cotton cultivation to enhance the income security of small farmers.

ACT

Dotted with green fields, Rajshahi, an administrative division situated in northwest Bangladesh, bears hardly any likeness to drought-prone and water-stressed lands. However, this was not always the case. Rajshahi falls within the Barind tract, which receives the lowest annual rainfall in the country. Before the 1980s, farmers could cultivate only one crop a year during the monsoons and the lands remained fallow for the rest of the year. This was before the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA), a department under the Ministry of Agriculture, initiated a concerted effort to tap groundwater through deep borewells for irrigation purposes in the region. Farmers have ever since been able to cultivate as many as three crops a year.

‘We have traditionally grown amun (rice) twice a year, ever since the deep borewells were installed. For more than a decade, we believed that we had overcome crop failures and the inability to grow multiple crops owing to acute rainfall shortages. However, we have gradually come to realise that extracting groundwater for irrigation is not a long-term solution to drought,’ says Shariful Islam, one of the young farmers in Nijampur village, Rajshahi. Shariful, like many other farmers, has noticed that groundwater availability has decreased over time. High density of deep borewells has led to the over-exploitation of groundwater, pushing the region back into facing severe water shortage.

Climate change is further exacerbating the issue, with monsoons that have become increasingly uncertain and untimely over the past few years. ‘We never know which year our crops will yield a profit, and which year we will have to resort to non-agricultural labour to make our ends meet,’ says a woman farmer.

Climate change is an immediate concern in Bangladesh. Along with its geophysical characteristics, which expose the country to extreme events, Bangladesh’s economy relies on agriculture, which is highly climate-sensitive, and a large proportion of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. This implies that the smallest shocks or stresses can push these already socioeconomically marginalised sections further into poverty and deprivation.

Moving toward climate-resilient options

Farmers in Rajshahi are gradually shifting to more water-efficient and economically viable options. But perceived risks, primarily because of a lack of information and support, have resulted in these transitions being limited to wealthy farmers. Most farmers with small landholdings, who urgently need to shift to climate-resilient crops and adaptation measures, continue to grow highly climate-sensitive traditional crops such as rice.

Over the past five years, however, a small group of farmers in Nijampur have started growing cotton, especially on unirrigated land. Because of its vertical tap root, cotton is much more resilient to high temperatures and less water-intensive, with one round of irrigation or timely monsoons being enough for the crop to grow and flower. In drier regions like the Barind tract, cotton crops are yielding better results than rice crops, which require standing water and multiple rounds of irrigation. While the input costs for growing cotton per bigha of land are slightly higher than those for rice, the returns are significantly higher – that is, 60 taka per kg as compared with 18–19 taka per kg for rice. However, cotton farming is labour-intensive, and most farmers require more information on seed varieties, pesticides and fertilisers.

The scenario in village Anupampara, around 100 km from Nijampur, is quite different. Farmers in this village have been growing cotton for more than 20 years. The soil is coarser and water availability is less in the region. ‘We grow cotton followed by lentils in the colder season. We also grow turmeric and some farmers grow sugarcane. Cotton generally fetches good prices,’ states one of the women cotton farmers in the village. ‘Cotton has helped us cultivate land that used to previously stay fallow owing to lack of irrigation facilities.’ As the BMDA has now prohibited the installation of new deep borewell connections, this characteristic of the cotton crop makes it attractive to farmers in this water-scarce region.  

Bridging the demand–supply gap

The textile and ready-made garments (RMG) industry constitutes a significant section of Bangladesh’s economy. As of 2012/13, RMG accounted for close to 83% of all national exports. Bangladesh’s domestic cotton production currently contributes only 4% of the industry’s demand for raw cotton.

The Cotton Development Board (CDB) of the Ministry of Agriculture has been working toward reducing this gap through various policy-, research- and practice-driven measures. ‘Cotton is an economically viable crop, especially in drier regions. We have set up demonstration farms, provide information and inputs support to the farmers and buy cotton from them at market prices to ensure they get the best returns,’ says a CDB official.

Cotton imports are proving a major drain on foreign exchange reserves in Bangladesh. To improve the balance of trade and make the textile industry, which contributes about 27% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), more self-sufficient, domestic cotton production needs to increase exponentially. To incentivise cotton production, there is a need to identify existing blockages not just at the production level but also across the entire value chain, especially in the context of the additional risks brought about by the changing climate.

Looking at the entire value chain

Even though cotton is known to have properties that make it climate-resilient, ACT has been assisting CDB in examining the resilience of the cotton value chain to climate change across the pre-production, production, post-harvest and market stages. Md. Nadiruzzam, ACT’s Team Leader for Bangladesh, states, ‘CDB is keen to implement measures necessary to increase the area under cotton cultivation and wants to plug existing gaps across the crop’s value chain. Our purpose is not just to help make the cotton production process more resilient to climate change through overcoming existing blockages and future risks now, but also to equip CDB with the skills to analyse the resilience of the value chain on an ongoing basis so as to enable them to take adaptive measures to deal with an uncertain future.’

Engaging with key people involved at different stages of the value chain, from farmers to ginners, revealed that the crop was prone to destruction by pests, and pest eradication is labour-intensive. On the other hand, it is clear that temperature rise and rainfall variability will lead to an increase in pest infestation and, therefore, to higher demands for labour, which in turn will lower the returns on investment from cotton production. This analysis also revealed that a handful of ginners controlled the collection of cotton across the country and that storage facilities were inadequate, leading to long delays between harvest and sale, which, in turn, led to the crop perishing. Meanwhile, cotton flowers are highly sensitive to untimely rainfall, thus increasing variability as a result of climate change could weaken cotton production.

Way forward for climate-resilient cotton farming

These findings highlight an urgent need to enhance technological and infrastructural support to farmers. The study delivers a large number of recommendations such as providing accessible and comprehensible weather information to cotton farmers. Such information needs to be communicated regularly to farmers to ensure they can adjust sowing times so sensitive cotton flowers are not exposed to untimely rainfall. Also, farmers currently apply pesticides based on subjective perceptions of changing weather patterns, leading to over-application. Timely weather information will permit a more efficient use of pesticides, which in turn will allow cotton crops to fight pest infestations that are rising as a result of increasing humidity and heat. 

Another important recommendation is incentivising the use of organic pesticides. This is because climate change impacts may lead to an increase in pest infestation that will need to be dealt with through an increasing use of pesticides. The increasing and unhindered use of chemical pesticides will have a negative impact on soil and human health, thus the imperative to shift to organic options is acute.

Also, there is a need to decentralise the process of collecting cotton harvests from across the country. The current system, which is tightly controlled by CDB and a small number of ginners, is leading to delays. With moisture and temperature in cotton cultivation areas increasing as a consequence of climate change, these delays will result in a larger proportion of the crop perishing.

CDB is in the process of incorporating such recommendations in its plans and programmes to ensure that measures to enhance the resilience of the value chain are mainstreamed into its everyday business and delivered at scale.

Therefore, through a systematic and evidence-based analysis of measures to enhance the resilience of the cotton cultivation process, ACT is helping Bangladesh become more self-sufficient with regard to the production of this economically vital crop. In the short term, the uptake of recommendations by CDB into its plans and policies will ensure that the livelihoods of farmers such as Shariful Islam are strengthened and that farmers are better able not only to function but also to flourish, despite the impacts of a changing climate.

This article was previously published by ACT in On the Frontiers of Climate Change. Find out more about ACT's work.

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