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Bangladesh faces tough times ahead

The capsizing of a ferry on the River Shitalakkhya this week near the capital Dhaka, resulting in dozens of passengers missing, is just the latest in a series of distressing news reports coming from Bangladesh.After two years of relative peace under the Awami League (AL) government, the country has again witnessed violent street protests in the last few days. These protests have erupted over a number of issues, including a campaign being waged in the textile industry for better pay and conditions, which has lead to the closure of several factories producing garments for prominent high street brands. Over 200 hundred activists were also detained after a protest over the arrest of three prominent Islamic leaders, accused of being involved in atrocities during the war of independence forty years ago.

Formerly ‘East Pakistan’, Bangladesh became independent in December 1971 after a nine-month war with West Pakistan, in which an estimated 3 million people died. Following an election promise, the current government set up a war-crimes tribunal to investigate those responsible for massacres during the war. Unfortunately, many of the accused are now prominent members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, because many Islamists supported and collaborated with West Pakistan during the war.

Bangladesh can ill afford a new wave of political unrest, when it faces the huge task of battling the key problems of poverty, energy shortages and climate change. In a new report released by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, entitled “"Investment in Agriculture for Higher Growth, Productivity and Adaptation to Climate Change", experts predict that unless more is done, the country will struggle to feed itself over the coming years.

Rice production is currently expected to fall by approximately 3.9 per cent per year in the decades leading up to 2050, due to the intrusion of sea water into the growing fields of the southern Khulna region and worsening water shortages in the northern regions. Droughts particularly threaten the harvests of Bangladesh because the country currently relies on the water-loving ‘boro’ rice variety which requires plenty of irrigation.

Climate variability already costs the Bangladeshi economy around 3 billion dollars a year and the financial costs could rise to 121 billion by 2050, unless better planning and investment lead to improved water-efficiency, the development of new crop varieties and agricultural diversification. The government already provides some subsidies to the agricultural sector for increasing food production, but the report suggests that a complete overhaul of the country’s agricultural system will be required if Bangladesh is to continue feeding its population of 158 million, which rises at nearly 1.3% annually, since 70 per cent of Bangladeshi’s are under 35. 

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