New rice varieties are being developed and water-saving cultivation technologies promoted to help feed Asia's growing populations.

Developing rice varieties that can survive in dry conditions and yet produce adequate yield is vital in helping farmers cope with the effects of climate change.

"Rice is the staple food for more than half of the human population and as such it plays a key role in ensuring food security in the Asia and Pacific region."

According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), about 38% of the world's land area, where 70% of the population lives and 70% of global food supply is produced, suffers from drought. Recent climate change estimates predict the intensity and frequency of water shortage to deteriorate further. This problem has a huge impact on the production of rice, a water-adapted plant grown in flooded fields.

Rice is the staple food for more than half of the human population and as such it plays a key role in ensuring food security in the Asia and Pacific region.

Water-saving technology

ADB is working with IRRI to develop climate-resilient rice to boost productivity in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in areas where there is a shortage of fresh water.

The first ADB regional technical assistance project showed very promising results for these technologies, achieving a 10% to 30% increase in yield despite using less water.

A second regional technical assistance project covering five countries - Bangladesh, India, and Nepal in South Asia, and Cambodia and the Lao People's Democratic Republic in Southeast Asia - supports large-scale seed multiplication, and development of climate-resilient water-saving rice varieties.

Farmers in Bangladesh, for example, can now look forward to a more bountiful rice harvest despite the onset of the dry months when water becomes scarce. IRRI data identifies drought as one of the biggest enemies of Bangladeshi farmers, so much so that the country has a record of drought spells with historical significance dating back to the 1700s. In 1999, Bangladesh suffered the longest drought in 50 years, with more than four months without rain, and, in 2010, the country recorded its lowest rainfall since 1995.

"We are helping disseminate the two principial water-saving technologies developed by IRRI, aerobic rice technology and alternate wetting and drying," ADB Principal Natural Resources and Agriculture Specialist Jiangfeng Zhang said.

These new generations of rice varieties suitable for water-saving technologies also provide farmers with better yield and high nutritional value. At the same time, Zhang said there is a need to work on crop diversification, reducing post-harvest losses, and addressing the effects of salinity in farms near or below sea-level, among others.

Working hand-in-hand

Aerobic rice technology involves growing rice using less water than usual. The new aerobic rice varieties developed under the ADB technical assistance produce higher yield than current varieties in water-short irrigated or drought-prone, rain-fed areas. Aerobic rice trials using direct seeding have demonstrated 30%-35% water saving. In addition, aerobic rice is a labor-saving technology, and can also be carried more efficiently with tractor-driven seeding implements.

Alternate wetting and drying is a water-saving technology that lowland farmers can apply to reduce their water use in irrigated fields. In this case, irrigation water is applied to flood the field for a certain number of days after the disappearance of ponded water. With this technology, no losses in crop harvest occur when compared with a continuously flooding field. In general, it can reduce water use by 15-30%.

Feed the world

Zhang explained that proper dissemination and distribution of the seeds is vital for this project to succeed. This will be possible when IRRI, national research institutes, private and public agencies, seed companies, and non-government organizations work hand in hand to help farmers understand these new rice varieties and adapt to new farming practices and technologies.

People from the Asia and Pacific region, and the world, will then be able to fully benefit from rice varieties that thrive in difficult meteorological circumstances.