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Country profile - Bangladesh

bangladesh

The largest delta in the world, with little land more than 12 metres above sea level, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries. Since 1980 there has been a substantial increase in crop, livestock and aquaculture production, which has seen the country become almost self-sufficient in food. But overpopulation, widespread poverty and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change are serious challenges.

Overview

Most of Bangladesh comprises of fertile flood plains, the nutrient-rich alluvial soils annually rejuvenated by the floodwaters of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Farmers practise intensive successive cropping, growing one crop of rice with the flood waters (June-October), a second rice crop with irrigation and finally a third winter crop in the dry season from November to February.

Rice is the primary crop in Bangladesh, and production has tripled since 1980 from 10 to 30 million tons per year. This has been achieved through investment in agricultural research, promotion of high yielding varieties, liberalisation of restrictions on irrigation, the importation of pumps and diesel engines, and the privatisation of fertiliser distribution.

Rice is the primary crop in Bangladesh (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Rice is the primary crop in Bangladesh
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

A significant increase in potato production has also been achieved over the last decade but without adequate access to clean seed, much of the seed used by farmers is infected with potato blight virus. Maize is a relatively new crop, predominantly used in poultry feed.

Despite the significant increase in rice production, Bangladesh is still a leading food grain importer in South Asia. Large quantities of palm oil, wheat, sugar, fruit and vegetables are also imported. Jute, tobacco and tea are the leading agricultural exports, Bangladesh remaining the largest global exporter of jute, a fibre used to make sacks, mats and rope.

The majority of the rural poor raise livestock, almost 80 per cent keeping poultry and goats while sheep are also popular. In response to a growing demand for milk and meat in the last ten years, populations of cattle and buffalo have also increased although productivity levels are low, even by regional standards. Bangladesh has extensive water resources and is one of the largest aquaculture producing countries. Shrimp, catfish, carp and tilapia are the most popular farmed species.

Bangladeshi women often have difficulties in accessing land and finance, and are not readily recognised by the extension system. However, the Grameen Bank's initiative to loan small amounts of money to the poor and needy has become a role model for development: of the 8 million borrowers, 97 per cent are women who have proved credit-worthy with repayment rates averaging between 95 and 98 per cent.

The dangers of water

Frequent floods, cyclones and storm surges pose a serious risk to the poorest (© FAO/Munir Uz Zaman)
Frequent floods, cyclones and storm surges pose a serious risk to the poorest
© FAO/Munir Uz Zaman

While the country's alluvial soil provides good arable land, frequent floods, cyclones and storm surges pose a serious risk to the poorest, who live on unstable riverbanks and flood-prone areas. More than 100,000 people are forced to move each year when villages and livelihoods are washed away; in 2004, flooding across two-fifths of the country destroyed almost four-fifths of the crops and left 10 million homeless.

Bangladesh not only has to cope with the disasters frequently wrought in the monsoon season but, in the longer term, any rise in sea level due to global warming threatens the land and livelihoods of millions. Scientists predict that by 2050, 17 per cent of Bangladesh could be submerged, whilst crop production could fall by 30 per cent and the intensity and frequency of cyclones increase. Increased salinity in the south of the country would also render large areas of land unsuitable for most crops.

To provide clean drinking water to prevent waterborne diseases, hand pumps were installed throughout the country in the 1970s. It was not known that the unusual underlying geology of Bangladesh had contaminated many aquifers with natural arsenic; this has exposed up to 77 million people to toxic levels of arsenic, according to a new study in the Lancet. The authors found that more than 20 per cent of deaths among those assessed were caused by exposure to arsenic. The World Health Organization has called it "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

Resource management

ICTs are being harnessed to strengthen the extension system (© D.Net)
ICTs are being harnessed to strengthen the extension system
© D.Net

After the global food crisis in 2008, the government adopted a policy of self-sufficiency to reduce reliance on imports. However, with a rapidly expanding population and decreasing availability of agricultural land, increased production will rely, to some extent, on the expansion of agriculture into areas with poorer soils and less water. The government has therefore identified the need to improve extension services to help farmers raise their yields.

With one extension officer for every 3,000 farmers, the government has begun to harness ICTs to strengthen the extension system, improve market access, mobilise finance for farmers, offer distance learning and organise farmers to enable them to exchange knowledge. One of the country's private mobile phone operators has launched a call centre service, enabling callers to talk to an agricultural expert. In 2009, the centre received around 5,000 calls per day. Agricultural TV and radio programmes are also designed to deliver information to farmers.

To improve access to information, the government is currently developing ICT surveillance systems to assist farmers with timely and accurate detection and diagnosis to prevent and control pests and diseases. It is the government's aim that extension workers will be able to use ICTs to collect, store and provide farmers with tailored information relating to integrated crop management, input availability and dosage, irrigation, soil quality, livestock health and aquaculture at the community level.

Future outlook

Farmers practise intensive successive cropping (© FAO/Munir Uz Zaman)
Farmers practise intensive successive cropping
© FAO/Munir Uz Zaman

Much of Bangladesh's agricultural achievements of the past can be attributed to the adoption of new, more intensive, cultivation technologies, supported by appropriate policies. Yet, with a growing population and decreasing land available for agriculture, the country will need a second generation of new varieties that can grow and yield well under stress.

In order to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the government has prioritised technology generation and dissemination and demand-driven agricultural extension. The government is also promoting e-commerce in order to improve market access for farmers and is promoting the development of new crop varieties to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Statistical information
  • Country: Bangladesh
  • Capital: Dhaka
  • Area: 143,998 sq km
  • Population: 156,118,464 (July 2010 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 1.5% (2010 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 69 (2010 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Bengali 98%, other 2%
  • Languages: Bangla (official), English
  • Inflation: 5.4% (2009 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$241 billion (2009 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$1,600 (2009 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 19%; industry: 28%; services: 53% (2009 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 55%; permanent crops: 3%; other: 42% (2005)
  • Major industries: cotton textiles, jute, garments, tea processing, paper newsprint, cement, chemical fertiliser, light engineering, sugar
  • Agricultural products: rice, jute, tea, wheat, sugarcane, potatoes, tobacco, pulses, oilseeds, spices, fruit; beef, milk, poultry
  • Natural resources: natural gas, arable land, timber, coal
  • Export commodities: garments, frozen fish and seafood, jute and jute goods, leather
  • Export partners: US 20.24%, Germany 12.75%, UK 8.64%, France 6.48%, Netherlands 5.9% (2009)

Date published: January 2011

 

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