First crops, now animals: Climate change hurts Bangladesh farmers

  • Bangladesh’s south coast blighted by rising salinity

  • Climate-hit farmers adapt to grow salt-tolerant crops

  • Concerns grow over impact of salt, heat on livestock

Bimal returns home after visiting a veterinary physician as his cow calf mostly remains very weak. The photo was taken from Dacope upazila, KhulnaFile photo

Along Bangladesh’s southern coast, farmers threatened by the impacts of climate change are striving to boost their resilience to rising salinity in the soil and water by growing salt-tolerant crops and turning to innovative agriculture techniques.

The country’s coastal regions, which make up a third of all arable land, have been hit by worsening drought, heat and water scarcity in recent years, while researchers say saline build-up is growing, spurred by various factors including rising seas.

Salinity levels in Bangladesh have increased by more than a quarter over the past three-and-a-half decades, according to the country’s Soil Resources Development Institute.

For example, salinity in the Rupsa River in southern Khulna district rose to 16.8 parts per trillion (ppt) in 2011 from 0.7 ppt in 1962, according to a 2022 government report which warned that sea level rise would exacerbate the problem in the future.

Planting crop varieties that can tolerate salinity and using climate-resilient practices have helped thousands of farmers to cope with this trend. However, local communities, agriculture experts, and officials are now asking: what about the livestock?

Many smallholder farmers in southern Bangladesh rely on raising farm animals like cows and goats for income and food, yet concerns are growing about how such livestock will cope with worsening salinity, rising temperatures and dwindling water.

“It is not easy to raise them these days,” said farmer Lakshmi Mondal, referring to the cows and goats she rears alongside her crop of cucumbers, bottle gourds and pumpkins.

The climate crisis - with rising temperatures and salinity - makes it a lot harder for local livestock farmers
Maksudur Rahman, chief executive, Bangladesh Environment Development Society

“Many people cannot manage enough grass and drinking water for the animals in the summer,” said Mondal, who is in her sixties and lives in the Dacope area of Khulna district.

In recent summers - when severe heatwaves have caused many ponds to dry up - farm animals have resorted to drinking water from saline rivers and canals, and become ill, farmers said.

“A number of cows and goats died in our area,” Mondal added.

Several agricultural, climate and development specialists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation/Context that there was limited research on how livestock are affected by salinity and climate change impacts - as well as a lack of awareness among communities about how to adapt to the growing threats.

“The climate crisis - with rising temperatures and salinity - makes it a lot harder for local livestock farmers,” said Maksudur Rahman, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environment Development Society (BEDS), an NGO.
The problem extends far beyond just Bangladesh.

From Egypt’s Nile Delta and Iraq’s wetlands to Thailand’s capital of Bangkok, many countries are struggling with growing salinity and its impact on farming, animals and human health.

Boosting Resilience to Worsening Climate Change

In Bangladesh, various studies suggest that by 2050, worsening soil salinity could cut production of high-yielding rice varieties by 15.6 per cent in coastal areas, while total rice production could fall by 17 per cent due to overall climate impacts.

Earlier this month, in the Pankhali area of Khulna, farmers were testing the salinity level of the soil and water with an EC meter - provided by the Dutch development organisation Cordaid - with the devices helping them to choose the right crops to grow.

More broadly, Cordaid said it works with 10,000-odd farmers in 15 districts to adopt salt-tolerant varieties of seeds of vegetables including bottle gourd, pumpkin or red beet.

“We try to support coastal farmers, from finding the right seeds to getting their produce to the market so that they get a proper price,” said Razibul Kader, a coordinator at Cordaid.

One such farmer is Josna Ray, 30, who has adopted the sorjan farming method, which involves planting vegetables on elevated ridges around an area that stores rainwater for the dry season.

During the dry spells, Ray uses earthen pitchers to drip rainwater brought from reservoirs into the soil without wasting it, and uses manure as well as gypsum, a cheap fertiliser that enriches soil quality and helps bring down the salinity level.

“The fallow lands are now filled with veggies,” she said, showing off her crops from beans and bitter melons to malabar spinach, which she sells to local traders. “The added income helps us run my six-member family and send our kids to school.”

Ray supplements her earnings with four cows and a few sheep.

“I also used to rear goats, but I abandoned goat-rearing as they easily get sick in a hot, humid, saline climate,” she said.

Cordaid representatives said water management techniques such as the sorjan method could enable farmers to be more efficient and save some water to help sustain their livestock.

Water scarcity, salinity, farming methods and animal-rearing must be considered in tandem rather than individually, while the impact of accelerating urbanisation on agriculture cannot be overlooked, said NGOs and researchers working on these issues.

“We have to balance the various interests of growing food for people, fodder for animals, as well as the growth of cities,” said Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, a senior researcher at the Wageningen University and Research Centre.

Impacts of Rising Heat and Salinity on Farm Animals

Heat stress affects the development and fertility of farm animals, while drinking saline water can cause livestock to become severely ill, according to Shamima Haque, an official at the local government office for livestock in Dacope, Khulna.

“People expect their cows to bear calves every year, but the salt and the heat can get in the way,” she said.

Many families in the region are now leaning towards raising sheep, which are considered more resilient to heat and disease.

Droughts are not only depriving animals of sufficient water, but reducing the availability of fodder with which to feed them.

The local government is training a few hundred farmers to grow salt-tolerant varieties like Napier grass or Bermuda grass, although it is a small first step at present, Haque explained.

Md. Zulfekar Ali, a scientist at the Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute, said more research was required to identify saline-tolerant fodder as well as livestock species that are better suited to rising temperatures and the threat of diseases.

As scientists, officials and NGOs work on such solutions, farmers are trying to keep their animals alive as best they can.

“The dry seasons often turn deadly for our animals with unbearable heat and salt,” said Mihir Sardar, a farmer who also works as a veterinarian in Pankhali, Khulna.

“But we are doing our best to protect the cattle and goats, seeking out advice from the government officials and NGOs, and sharing tips amongst ourselves,” he added.