Saving Asia's Farm Lands from Climate Change with Salt-resilient Rice

Article | 30 May 2014

The first harvest of salt-tolerant rice variety in Taytay, in the Philippine island of Palawan, may pave the way for local farmers to reclaim lands lost to saltwater intrusion and protect the livelihood of coastal communities.

The municipality of Taytay, in the Philippine island of Palawan, is known as the island's "rice bowl." Yet, its status is under threat from rising sea levels invading fertile land, putting pressure on local authorities to protect the livelihood of coastal communities.

"We have physical evidence that there are areas which have been reached by salt water," said municipal agricultural technician Hernan Fenix. "Many farm lands, which were previously planted with freshwater varieties, cannot be planted anymore."

The local government estimates that about 1,500 of the area's 9,000 hectares of agricultural lands have been left unproductive because of saltwater intrusion into groundwater. Low crop yields and heavy production losses have forced farmers to abandon their lands.

Pilot-testing salt-tolerant rice

With the help of science, ADB and its partners are looking at ways to reclaim farm land that would otherwise be lost to the intrusion of the seas. Two salt-tolerant rice varieties, Salinas 1 and Salinas 9, from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are being pilot-tested in 1.2 hectares of salt-affected rice fields in the villages of Pamantolon and Poblacion.

"I'm very lucky that I have been selected as one of the farmers who will pilot-test these two rice varieties," said farmer Reynaldo San Jose. "I was very eager to learn because this can be good for business."

"This intervention is significant because it addresses a climate change impact that directly affects the food supply and livelihood of coastal communities in the municipality."

- Raul Roldan, CTI-SEA deputy team leader for the Philippines

About 42 cavans of rice (one cavan is roughly equivalent to 60 kilograms) are expected to be harvested in 2014. Both transplanting and broadcasting methods were used to plant the rice, with 16 kg of Salinas 9 and 4 kg of Salinas 1 cultivated using the transplanting method and 40 kg of Salinas 9 cultivated using the broadcast method.

This is one of the five climate change adaptation activities that ADB and the Global Environment Facility are funding under the Coastal and Marine Resources Management in the Coral Triangle-Southeast Asia (CTI-SEA) project.

"This intervention is significant because it addresses a climate change impact that directly affects the food supply and livelihood of coastal communities in the municipality," said Raul Roldan, CTI-SEA deputy team leader for the Philippines.

The first harvest of the salt-tolerant rice will be used as seed supply for the next planting season. CTI-SEA will also survey the community's acceptance of the new rice varieties during the year.

The salt-tolerant rice story

The problems facing the farmers in Taytay is certainly not unique to the island of Palawan or the Philippines. According to IRRI, flooding or submergence of rice fields regularly occurs in about 15 million to 20 million hectares of Asia's rice lands. The Food and Agriculture Organization, on the other hand, estimates that around 6.5% or 831 million hectares of the world's total area is affected by salt-water intrusion.

In flooded and saline-prone crop lands, freshwater irrigation and drainage are usually not readily available. The use of salt-tolerant varieties is one of the most immediate solutions to restore land productivity.

IRRI, which is also based in the Philippines, has been at the forefront of this effort. Salinas 1 and Salinas 9 are two of nine IRRI-bred saline-tolerant varieties developed in recent years. These crossbreeds have double the tolerance to salinity compared with naturally salt-tolerant varieties. Saline-tolerant rice types can survive in saline-prone soil having salt levels of at least 0.3%. These varieties may have tolerance either during the seeding stage, during reproductive stage, or both.

Addressing the effects of climate change

Rising sea levels is one of the consequences of climate change having a negative impact on the lives of coastal communities across Asia and the Pacific. Through this project, ADB is supporting communities in the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion - including Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia - in protecting their coastal and marine ecosystems and developing increased resilience to natural and human-induced hazards. The project, which will run from 2012 to 2016, is designed to enable the governments of the three countries to implement priority activities across a range of areas.

Since July 2013, CTI-SEA has been working with the municipal government of Taytay to increase its resilience to the impacts of climate change. The pilot-testing of salt-tolerant rice varieties is one of the five priority strategies in Taytay's Climate Change Adaptation Plan. Others are mangrove reforestation, pilot abalone cage culture, training on early warning and disaster response and preparedness, and health management and sanitation monitoring.

The project in Taytay builds on the work of WWF-Philippines, which facilitated climate change adaptation planning in the municipality with funding from the Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).