Life of the farmers living in the Haor regions is completely different from that of the farmers of other areas of Bangladesh. There are about 1.26 million hectares of cultivated lands in seven Haor districts, of which 66% falls under Haor area.
Farmers of these areas have to depend on a single crop Boro to earn their livelihoods while the farmers of other areas can cultivate at least three crops all around the year. That is why living in the Haor regions is largely based on the production of Boro crops. Sudden rains and flash floods following onrush of waters from the upper stream have threatened the normal lifestyle of the people of Haor regions and created serious concern for them this year. According to the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE), heavy rain and flash flood submerged more than 0.12 million hectares of Boro farmland in the Haor and marshy areas of six north-eastern districts including Sunamganj, Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, Kishoreganj and Netrokona. The affected areas constitute above six percent of the country’s total Boro acreage of 4.8 million hectares. The damage in Haor crops might affect total rice production of the country and the staple could be dearer further.
Like many other countries, agriculture in Bangladesh is gravely dependent on weather. Besides, climate change has added extra hazards for the farmers. Sudden rain has ruined their fate. Farmers of the low-lying Haor regions have become the worst victim of natural calamities. Being the cultivators of a single crop Boro, farmers of Haor belts contribute a lot in the overall rice production of the country. As they need to fight ahead of the frequent flash floods, different organisations of the government planned to save them from unexpected natural disasters so that they and their farmlands could survive. There was no way to avoid natural disaster but the aim was to prepare accordingly. Government provided necessary money to protect the crops of the Haor regions. This year the havoc was largely man-made as there has been a delay on the part of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) in starting repair works of dams in major Haor areas. Besides, there are allegations against some unscrupulous BWDB officials that they are involved in corruption in some districts where they helped the contractors build embankments using poor construction materials in the already completed projects, which couldn’t prevent flow of water and preserve the Boro crops. As a result, 50 percent flooded lands witnessed permanent crop damage in the Haor regions.
Over 1.18 million farmers have cultivated the crop in only Sylhet division this year. It includes 328,064 in Sylhet, 247,089 in Moulvibazar, 285,225 in Habiganj and 320,845 in Sunamganj. Around 171,115 hectares of land in Sunamganj, Netrokona and Kishoreganj are submerged by flash floods. Of that, 130,000 hectares are alone in Sunamganj. Flash flood hit the Haor regions at a time when the crops were about to reap and the farmers were preparing to cut them. Stock of food crops has already finished in the houses of the farmers and they are now going through a miserable situation because of the scarcity of food. Narayan Das, a flood victim of Rajanagar area in Derai upazilla of Sunamganj, said, “We were taking preparations to cut our crops immediate after the celebration of Bangla New Year. But the sudden flash flood and rainfall have damaged everything. When the flood hit our area and submerged our farmlands breaking the embankments, I had food crops of only seven days to run my family. Now we have no food crops in stock. We usually eat what we collect from the Boro paddy field. As I don’t know how I can manage the food for my family tomorrow, I just can’t think about the rest of the days.”
Borhan Uddin, Tahirpur sadar union council chairman in Sunamganj, shared, “We repeatedly protested against the corruption while implementing the Haor embankments projects but no one really cared about our complaint. Today the chief executive engineer of BWDB in Sunamganj, Afsaruddin has been closed because of the corruption charge of Tk 25 crores in 28 embankment projects. But the damage has already been done. If Water Development Board could take timely action and monitor every project properly, our farmers didn’t have to suffer.”
Not just scarcity of foods for the residents of Haor region, but a severe crisis of animal feed, especially the cattle feed is prevailing. Motahar Hossain, a cattle owning farmer of Habibpur village of Shulla upazilla in Sunamganj, stated, “As almost all the grass fields or grazing grounds are under water, we have no way out to feed our cattleheads while the very stocks of the well-to-do farmers are also finished. Like the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages we are also taking our cattleheads to the local markets. More than 70 percent of the Boro paddy is lost in Sunamganj. When we are in doubt about managing foods for our family members, then it’s better to sell cattleheads even by incurring huge loss.”
Golam Maula, a farmer of flash flood affected Baradalla Beel area of Nabiganj upazilla of Habiganj district, said, “The loss is irreparable.
Immediately after the incident, officials of the local administration came to visit the area. The public representatives also directed to help us. But these are never enough in comparison to what we lost. I took loan from the local mahazan to cultivate the land. I have to pay back my debt. How would it be possible? I don’t see any hope.”
The situation of the farmers of Netrokona and Kishoreganj are, more or less, the same. Their crops are also submerged under the flood water. When asked about the Boro crops, Shidhu Pramanik, a villager of Krishnapur of Khaliajuri upazilla in Netrokona district, replied, “I had to take loan from the bank in order to regain my mortgaged land and cultivate Boro. Prime Minister temporarily adjourned the interest of the loan, but didn’t exempt it. I urge the authority to declare the affected Haor regions as disaster zone and provide all-out support to rehabilitate the farmers. Under the circumstances, the people of Haor regions need special assistance from the government.”
While visiting the Haor area of Itna and Mithamain upazilla of Kishoreganj district, this correspondent found numbers of farmers who were cutting crops from the water. When they were collecting paddy plants to put them on their boat, it seemed that their paddies were not reaped fully. But they were trying to collect those desperately. They thought that they would be able to use those crops to survive. While responding to our query, Farid Mia, a farmer of Gopdighi village of Mithamain upazilla, couldn’t control his emotion. Breaking down in tears he said, “This is the only crop we get here. Boro paddy provides food for my family throughout the year. Now after losing all the crops how would I manage food for my family members? I am trying to collect the crops so that if possible, I can sell them. What else can I do?”
According to an official report flash floods and excessive rains, alongside rolling waters from Meghalaya and Assam, had destroyed Boro crops worth Tk 12000 million in the region last year. As a result, production of the major staple witnessed a slight decline in the last financial year to 34.57 million tonnes from 34.71 million tonnes earlier, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ temporary estimate. The government this year has provided Tk 6.562 million in assistance in seed and fertiliser under an incentive programme to 7500 poor and marginal farmers and financed to construct 4,500 km of low-lying embankments. But the initiatives have gone in vain as the farmers of the low lying Haor regions have become the victims of irregularities. As against 40 percent of the total annual grain production coming from rain-fed agriculture, the country is now heavily dependent on Boro for the national food security. According to the data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Boro is the largest part of the country’s rice production. In the 2015-16 fiscal, Boro made up around 19 million tonnes of the total 35 million tonnes of rice produced in Bangladesh. The total Boro paddy loss might have passed 200,000 hectares. This disaster in the Haor agriculture will create huge negative impact in the overall rice production this year. And it may cause uneven hike in the price of rice in the country.
Government should take stern actions against the culprits who are involved in corruption in embankments building projects so that no one dares to play with the fate of the farmers in future. It’s time for the agriculture ministry to give necessary incentives to the affected Boro farmers in the Haor regions. The future agro-economic policy should prioritise issues related to ecological imbalance and climate change fallouts. Farmers should be equipped to fight flash floods and stagnant waters on croplands. In maximum Boro farmlands, farmers cultivate BR-28 and BR-32 rice.
These common and popular species of rice are not waterproof. Farmers need varieties of rice which can withstand up to 17 days of water logging.
Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has developed three new high yielding rice varieties including BRRI dhan79, BRRI dhan80 and BRRI hybrid dhan6, which are flash flood tolerant. Though these species of rice are suggested to be planted during Aman season, they could be used in Boro season as well. The Department of Agriculture (DAE) should encourage the farmers in the grassroots level to experiment more to reduce their loss ahead of any natural calamities.