Krupnik publishes on potential for sustainable crop intensification through surface water irrigation in Bangladesh
Changing dietary preferences and population growth in South Asia have resulted in increasing demand for wheat and maize, along side high and sustained demand for rice. In the highly productive northwestern Indo-Gangetic Plains of South Asia, farmers utilize groundwater irrigation to assure that at least two of these crops are sequenced on the same field within the same year. Such double cropping has had a significant and positive influence on regional agricultural productivity. But in the risk-prone and food insecure lower Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains (EIGP), cropping is less intensive. During the dryer winter months, arable land is frequently fallowed or devoted to lower yielding rainfed legumes. Seeing opportunity to boost cereals production, particularly for rice, donors and land use policy makers have consequently reprioritized agricultural development investments in this impoverished region. Tapping groundwater for irrigation and intensified double cropping, however, is unlikely to be economically viable or environmentally sound in the EIGP. Constraints include saline shallow water tables and the prohibitively high installation and energetic extraction costs from deeper freshwater aquifers. The network of largely underutilized rivers and natural canals in the EIGP could conversely be tapped to provide less energetically and economically costly surface water irrigation (SWI). This approach is now championed by the Government of Bangladesh, which has requested USD 500 million from donors to implement land and water use policies to facilitate SWI and double cropping. Precise geospatial assessment of where freshwater flows are most prominent, or where viable fallow or low production intensity cropland is most common, however remains lacking. In response, we used remotely sensed data to identify agricultural land, detect the temporal availability of freshwater in rivers and canals, and assess crop production intensity over a three-year study period in a 33,750 km2 case study area in southwestern Bangladesh. We combined these data with georeferenced and temporally explicitly soil and water salinity information, in addition to relative elevation classifications, in order to examine the extent of winter fallows and low productivity rainfed cropland that could be irrigated by small-scale surface water pumps. Applying observations of irrigated crop sowing dates and yields from 510 wheat, 550 maize, and 553 rice farmers, we also modeled crop intensification production scenarios within the case study area. We conservatively estimate that at least 20,800 and 103,000 ha of fallow and rainfed cropland, respectively, could be brought into intensified double cropping using SWI. Scenario analysis indicates that if 25%–75% of the fallow or low-intensity land were converted to irrigated maize, national aggregate production could increase by 10–14% or 29–42%, respectively. Conversion to wheat would conversely boost national production by 9–10% or 26–31%. Irrigated rice is however unlikely to contribute >3%. In aggregate, these actions could generate between USD 36–108 million of revenue annually among farmers. Intensification therefore has important land use policy and food and income security implications, helping to rationalizei SWI investments. Crop choice, water resource allocation, and water governance will however remain crucial considerations for irrigation planners.