Gabriel Yunus Pontin
With the warming target of 1.5C slipping from our collective grasp, and the past COP27 viewed by many as our last chance to prevent truly severe climate outcomes, it’s the developing world that stands the most to lose despite often polluting the least per capita. Already those who have been affected by climate change are learning to adapt. In Bangladesh, duck was once a delicacy reserved for winter but now you’ll find it available in abundance all year round simply because ducks can swim.
Duck rearing, which was previously a small household industry, has replaced much of traditional chicken farming due to heightened unpredictability of the rains in the region as a result of global warming. As such, livestock more resilient to becoming too wet, too hot, too cold and importantly have the ability to swim has become key to securing Bangladesh’s food supply. Additionally, rearing ducks alongside rice cultivation increases yields or the crop by around 0.35 tonnes per hectare, as ducks naturally eat various pests that reside in rice paddies –something that chickens do not do.
Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased rainfall. About once every decade around a third of the country is affected by floods while in some catastrophic years this rises to 60%. Duck farming is key to the livelihood of a growing number of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh who rely increasingly on selling ducks for meat but primarily rear them for their eggs. In addition, commercial farms have become a more significant portion of the food system since the nineties. However, a shortage of vaccines and poor distribution combined with poor duck healthcare supports have slowed commercial development of duck agriculture in the Haor region (a Bangla word meaning flood prone low-lying land which is filled with water for several months a year). Hence, the focus of policy practitioners should be to support the existing smallholder and commercial farming activity in addition to laying the foundation for future commercial development to secure a food supply more resilient to climate change and its effects.
Although NGOs, such as BRAC, have instituted programs to train citizens in duck rearing and have provided grants to make the bird-to-bird transition easier, 73% of duck farmers in the Haor areas have no training and exactly 0% have any kind of long training. In addition, just under a third possess duck houses with insufficient ventilation and floor space to keep the animals healthy. Half of farmers report cleaning their duck houses only irregularly and around 15% report never cleaning them, two thirds have been measured to only have a partial idea about duck disease and the same number have never vaccinated any of their flock.
These statistics provide us with the negative consequences of an incredible bottom up transition amongst the population fuelled by their own intuition and understanding of their environment to make the switch from chickens to ducks. The most common diseases for ducks in Bangladesh are duck cholera and duck plague both of which are commonly attributed to poor hygiene in the animal’s living environment. Additionally the mean mortality rate is estimated to be at 15.2% with many farmers losing over 20% of their flocks prematurely.
To fix these problems, we have identified two primary avenues to success. We judge these to be education and vaccination. The first would primarily benefit smallholders whilst the second benefits both smallholders and commercial farms whilst allowing for the future expansion of commercial farming.
In terms of education, the Ministries of Agriculture and Education need to collaborate with trusted NGOs to provide training, advice, and information to farmers on how to keep their livestock healthy. BRAC have carried out such programs, which also include cash grants to farmers. Due to the low literacy rate amongst farmers of the region, at 48%, this training has to take a non-literary approach. We suggest the use of puppet plays (particularly interactive), both physical and shadow, which have proved to be effective in educating largely illiterate rural communities on environmental and health issues across Asia. Communicating this vital information via a visual narrative allows for the information to stick.
On the vaccination front, a combination vaccine containing live attenuated duck enteritis virus and recombinant outer membrane protein H of Pasteurella multocida would be best at combating duck cholera (the most common disease in the duck population according to farmers themselves) specifically, as it has recently been shown to be more effective than the traditional monovalent vaccine. These kind of combination vaccines have been suggested as a result of expert workshops, in addition to regulatory reform that would allow the state to support vaccination more thoroughly and an increased and more effective role for community animal health workers in spreading the available medicines to even the most remote and out of the way communities. This would allow both the smallholders and commercial farms to maintain more of their flocks and lay a foundation for sustainable commercial duck farming. The benefits should implore the Ministry of Agriculture to find a large scale vaccination programme worth additional cost especially when combined with international NGOs and private finance ready to invest in the future of the animal agricultural sector in the country.
Bangladesh has already suffered from global warming, ordinary people have so far had to rely largely on themselves to adapt to new conditions even by changing the livestock they raise in order to make ends meet. To support the ingenuity and entrepreneurial initiative of these farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture should focus on increasing farming education and medical support (particularly through vaccination). Doing so unlocks the potential for a commercialised, profitable and relatively flood-proof food supply in addition to maximising the existing duck farmers’ ability to feed themselves and Bangladesh’s wider population.
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