Bangladesh Still Floods, But No Longer Starves
Bangladesh Is Opening Its Doors To Industrialization And Beginning To Thrive
June 23, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Bangladesh had the worst floods in its history last year. In other words, the country suffered its worst flooding since Noah stepped off the Ark.
Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world. Essentially, it's the flood plain where two huge rivers--the Ganges and the Brahmaputra--carry spring snowmelt from the towering Himalayan Mountains to the sea.
When the rivers flood, so does Bangladesh. In addition, the typhoons that frequently sweep in from the Indian Ocean can drive millions of tons of seawater over the country's low-lying fields and villages.
In the old days, Bangladeshis drowned by the hundreds of thousands. Now, reinforced-concrete "typhoon towers" provide refuge so people can get above the flood waters.
Once, famines were frequent. In World War II, millions starved when Bangladesh, then called Bengal, suffered one of history's last great non- Communist produced famines.
By contrast, during the flooding of 1998, Bangladesh was able to import record amounts of grain to feed its people--2 million tons of rice and 2.6 million tons of wheat. Donor nations provided 1.6 million tons of the wheat, but Bangladesh's economy is now strong enough to buy most of the extra grain it needs on the open market.
Poverty once doomed Bangladesh. The old agricultural economy could never rise above its flood-prone vulnerability. Today, the country's economy is gradually industrializing.
The economy has yet to boom like those of South Korea or Thailand, as Bangladesh's fractious Muslim politics still limit economic growth to 4 percent to 6 percent per year. But even this moderate economic growth puts the country on the way to becoming a promising global customer.
A British investment mission that visited Bangladesh last year said it was encouraged about the country's future, given its huge gas reserves, strong employment base in textiles and its potential in power, food processing and shipping. The delegation also concluded the country's reputation for political unrest has been exaggerated.
The population is still growing slowly, at about 1.5 percent per year, with a projected peak population of perhaps 175 million in 2025. With the economy growing recently at 6 percent, the country's diet will be upgraded over the coming years, especially with more wheat, meat and dairy products.
How will the agricultural demand be met? Bangladesh cannot increase its cropland, and it is already growing year-round crops. There are no multibillion-dollar plans to dam either river in the interest of flood control.
Bangladeshi farmers have learned to grow high-yielding wheat on land that won't deliver high rice yields. The government is trying to introduce higher-yielding hybrid rice varieties from China and India, but farmers have yet to accept the idea of buying seed instead of saving it from the previous year's crop.
Bangladesh can't possibly produce enough to feed 175 million affluent people in the decades ahead. The country is already importing an average of 2 million tons of grain per year, and nearly half a million tons of vegetable oil.
Bangladesh's poultry industry is beginning to grow and consumption of soybean meal increased by 10,000 tons last year, to 85,000 tons annually. Most meal is imported from India, though India will soon begin to use it to feed its own expanding poultry flocks. More growth in feed demand lies ahead.
That's why a policy of food self-sufficiency would be a disaster for Bangladesh. The country's people would be threatened with malnutrition most years and famine in many.
With trade and industrial exports, however, the people of Bangladesh can look forward to buying the food they want and the food reserves they need. Which shows that trade can conquer famine, even in flood-prone Bangladesh.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.