Farmers need protection from flashflood losses

Reaz Ahmad
Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

Photo Source: Internet


This has been a bad crop year so far with natural calamities causing immense losses to the country’s main rice crops – Boro and Aman. Flashfloods in the northeastern backswamp that struck unusually early in the month of March first caused a major blow to the Boro, only rice crop the Haor farmers grow in a year. That loss of crops forced the government to continousely provide succour to nearly half a million people in complete distress in six northeastern districts. Then came the attacks of deadly fungi in the form of rice blast and finally a devastating deluge in July-August period damaging Aman seedlings in six lakh hectares of lands. In most conservative estimate, country’s farmers lost over two million metric tones of rice this year in flashflood, flood and blast, forcing the government to go to international market for importing rice, first time in six years.


Thanks to government’s policy supports and free distribution of key agro-input among the flood-hit farmers that most of the Aman growers put in best efforts and managed to recoup the early flood loss but yet the output is projected to be little less than the usual production target.


On many counts, this year’s experiences are very good lessons to take home. First of all we had a very low food stock in hand thereby, giving the government no leeway to intervene into the market when rice prices spiraled to an all time high. When we lost substantial volume of rice crop in the Haor flashflood, our public granaries had a very low deposit of foodstuffs – both rice and wheat. Had there been sufficient reserve in government food silos, the public sector could have played a bigger role in intervening into a volatile rice market. On top of that there had been a high tax (28 percent) in force on rice import failing the private traders too. A bit late though, later it occurred to the government and its substantially lowered the tariff in two phases thereby, allowing the private traders to go for import from across the border and enhance availability of the staple in the domestic market. The state grain agency – Directorate General of Food – also indulged itself into a shopping spree in procuring rice, through state-level deals, from all over the places – from Vietnam to Cambodia to Thailand to Myanmar to India. It put a heavy dent to the country’s food budget.


Largely because of low food stock in public granaries during the two crucial flooding periods, government could not cushion the ultra poor against the high rice price shock sufficiently. As against 7.28 lakh tonnes of food distributed among the poor in July-October last year, the government could provide just 4.53 lakh tonnes in the corresponding period this year under the public food distribution system (PFDS). Though the food department is operating an open market sale (OMS) of rice for the urban and rural poor, it could not provide the ultra poor five million people with the Tk. 10-a-kg rice.


Taking the lesson albeit hard way the food department is now in full swing to replenish the dried up food stock. It is building up a reasonably good reserve of at least one million metric tones of food in the public granaries so that it remains better prepared next time disaster strikes.


Lesson that the Agriculture Ministry took home from this year’s experience is – no early-maturing variety is a cent percent guaranty against the wrath of flashflood that can strike as early as end of March – when actually grain formation can’t be completed in the Haor’s Boro lands. So what essentially is required – is giving protection to the vast swaths of northeastern backswamps from flashflood-inundation. And this is not something that is impossible. There are intuitional set ups, manpower, mandate and resources under the Water Resources Ministry to do the needful for such protection. But what we badly lack is accountability and transparency in the process of such resource mobilization in building embankments for protection of Haor farmlands.


In fact this year’s early strike of flashfloods in the Haor region is an eye-opener, a revealer of secrets (read open secret). It’s a stark reminder of the fact that why people of Haor zone always try to raise their voice against corruptions in embankment buildings. Once the flashfloods in late March this year wrecked havoc, it was revealed that many of the contractors entrusted with the tasks of embankment building actually didn’t do their jobs properly, completely and that deprived the poor Boro growers of their crops. An Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) carried probe found truth into the allegations that contractors, engineers and a section of local political persons had hands behind such grafts over construction, repair and maintenance of Haor embankments.


While Agriculture Ministry is doing its part by sensitizing farmers about going for early-maturing rice varieties in the Haor region, the departments and engineers concerned need to reassess what went wrong this year and what needed to be done this time to stop recurrence in next Boro season. Country and its farmers can ill-afford another crop failure. It’s about time the Haor embankments should be built, repaired and maintained properly.


Scientists of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have made a call to take all the necessary measures to harvest ripen crops in the coming Boro season before the flash floods. For this they suggested to cultivate early maturing short duration rice varieties, specially in the low lying areas of the country. Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury took time in taking part workshops aiming at safeguarding next Boro crop. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) organized one of such workshops recently to highlight and disseminate essential tips and suggestions on safe cultivation and harvesting of Boro crops in the upcoming season of rice cultivation before the flash floods. The suggestions have been processed in booklet form and arrangements have been made to deliver those soon to the concerned people including the agricultural officers throughout the country.


Protecting Boro in the Haor is so very crucial that we can ill-afford further negligence, mismanagement and grafts in embankment upkeep. Boro contributes 55 percent of the country’s over 34 million metric tons of annual rice production. Along with catering proper farm management and advices to farmers and building up food reserve in the public granaries, government needs to ensure the Haor zone’s protection from flood waters.


(The writer is the Executive Editor of the United News of Bangladesh)

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