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Prepaid irrigation cards and AWD may unlock a more sustainable rice farming future for Bangladesh

Prepaid irrigation card usage by farmers in the Barind area of Bangladesh can facilitate wider adoption of Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) practices in rice farming, making rice cultivation more sustainable and cost-effective.

May 9, 2024, Rajshahi, Bangladesh: Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It has experienced more than 185 adverse weather events over the past 20 years. With more intense heat waves occurring, groundwater table declining and water scarcity increasing, more sustainable rice-based agri-food systems practices are needed to conserve much needed natural resources. Climate-smart agricultural practices like AWD stand to save irrigation water, mitigate climate change effects, ensure sustainability of rice farming, and maintain food and nutrition security for farmers.

To this end, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI); the Tufts University, USA; and the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA) completed a joint knowledge-sharing workshop to understand the status, challenges, and opportunities of using prepaid irrigation cards to improve water use efficiency in rice production in the Barind areas, and discuss policy opportunities and implications that factor in the wider promotion AWD irrigation technology in the country.

In the Barind areas of Bangladesh, the BMDA operates deep tubewells through a prepaid card for irrigation for farmers, which allows the farmers to draw groundwater for irrigation and pay according to the volume of water used through prepaid cards. However there are variations in the prepaid card usage across villages.

The workshop is underpinned by the research project titled “Using Experimental Evidence to Scale up AWD Technology for Rice Production in Bangladesh", which is being implemented by IRRI and Tuft University in Bangladesh since 2021.  The project aims to generate evidence for policy makers and development practitioners for enhancing the adoption of AWD to help farmers use water efficiently, especially for those that purchase water by the hour.  Some key findings from the project include:

  • AWD is most effective in Bangladesh when farmers pay by the hour for pumping groundwater for irrigation. 
  • The usage of prepaid irrigation cards varies substantially among villages, sub-districts, and districts in the Barind area. For example, in 10 villages of the Biral sub-district, card usage per village ranged from 20 to 136.  
  • The overall goal of water conservation can be achieved most efficiently if efforts towards the higher adoption of AWD practices by farmers are focused in regions where financial incentives make it profitable for farmers to adopt AWD technology. 
  • Efforts in terms of demonstrations, distribution of AWD pipes, farmers’ training, and other information sharing should be directed more towards areas showing the most potential towards the adoption of AWD practices. 

The research results can be used to prioritize the implementation of AWD practices in different geographies of Bangladesh.  The impact evidence and policy recommendations generated from the study aim to support the government’s extension and training efforts around AWD by identifying areas where farmers purchase water using irrigation cards.

"BMDA aims to increase food supply while preserving the environment through water-saving technologies. The AWD method, known for saving 25-30% of water, fuel, and expenses, will enhance resource use efficiency in rice production in the Barind region, by leveraging a prepaid metering system. Farmers will be encouraged to adopt AWD, reducing water consumption significantly. This environment-friendly approach will enrich the Barind area, promising a greener future," BMDA Chairperson Begum Akhter Jahan stated.

“Addressing climate change challenges in agriculture demands innovation. Bundling AWD with prepaid irrigation cards offers a transformative solution for AWD adoption among farmers. This approach has multiple benefits such as conserving water, minimizing production cost, reducing methane emissions, and promoting sustainable rice farming,” said Dr. Humnath Bhandari, Country Representative for IRRI in Bangladesh.

Experts and practitioners from different government and  non-government organizations such as the Department of Extension (DAE), Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC), BMDA, Universities, non-profit organizations, community-based organizations,  farmers, experts, water suppliers,  IRRI, and Tufts University, congregated at this workshop to discuss the subjects of AWD, water use efficiency, water conservation, and energy efficiency in rice farming with the overall goal of making rice farming sustainable.