Sav­ing our rice bowl

>4 Paddy farm­ers in Kedah are bear­ing the brunt of a chang­ing cli­mate’s ef­fects.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By TAN CHENG LI star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

STEP­PING into his rice field, Ba­harom Kasim sank in up to his knees. A year and a half ago, the soft earth would have reached up to his waist. His har­vest­ing ma­chine would have been par­tially sub­merged in the quick­sand-like soil, which swal­lowed what­ever en­tered the field.

Like some 3,800 other paddy farm­ers in the Muda agri­cul­ture scheme near Alor Star, Kedah, Ba­harom’s rice fields suf­fered from “soft soil” – land that is more mud than earth, mak­ing rice cul­ti­va­tion and har­vest­ing nearim­pos­si­ble.

The prob­lem got so bad that the 61-yearold farmer was left with lit­tle choice – he aban­doned his fields in the hope that they would dry out. Most of the 200 farm­ers in Block 13 of the Muda scheme in Kam­pung Masjid Tualang, Kubang Badak, did the same, leav­ing their fields idle dur­ing the plant­ing sea­son of Au­gust 2012 to March 2013.

The move worked. In April, Ba­harom could sow his fields again and by Oc­to­ber, he har­vested over five tonnes of paddy from his one hectare of land.

“Pre­vi­ously, it was dif­fi­cult to get even two tonnes,” says the fourth­gen­er­a­tion paddy farmer as he ploughs his fields for the new plant­ing sea­son. The soil, how­ever, has not fully re­cov­ered.

He still could not use heavy ma­chin­ery to sow his fields, which would have done the job faster. In­stead, he would have to use a hand­held seed­ing ma­chine. Nev­er­the­less, he says things are much bet­ter now.

“Af­ter we closed for one plant­ing sea­son, about three-quar­ters of the rice fields in Block 13 are bet­ter than be­fore and plant­ing re­sumed.”

Ba­harom points to in­suf­fi­cient drainage canals, which leaves the fields wa­ter­logged, as the cause of the soft soil. While paddy grows in wet con­di­tions, there has to be a layer of hard­ened soil (what farm­ers call “hard pan”) about half a me­tre deep to sup­port the seedlings and farm­ing ma­chin­ery. When the fields are con­stantly soaked, the hard pan does not form.

The Muda area cer­tainly has one of the low­est drainage canal den­si­ties among the coun­try’s gra­naries, with 11m of drainage canals per hectare com­pared with 24m to 48m in the oth­ers. Be­ing the pi­o­neer large- scale rice plant­ing scheme in the coun­try, it was es­tab­lished at a time when ir­ri­ga­tion know-how was still lim­ited, back in 1970.

The lack of drainage, how­ever, is just one of the con­trib­u­tors to the soft soil prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials of the Muda Agri­cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (Mada). They say the prob­lem has more to do with the chang­ing weather pat­tern. The Muda scheme sits in the north­ern re­gion of Penin­su­lar Malaysia and this area has a dis­tinct dry pe­riod from Jan­uary to March, which is nec­es­sary to dry up the fields and re­store soil fer­til­ity in prepa­ra­tion for the next plant­ing sea­son. The weather, how­ever, has turned un­pre­dictable and this dry sea­son is no longer the norm.

“It was a ‘wet drought sea­son’ in 2010 and 2011. It was sup­posed to be dry, but it rained, so the fields were al­ways flooded,” says Nasirud­din Ab­dul­lah, di­rec­tor of the ir­ri­ga­tion and drainage unit in Mada.

“The months of Fe­bru­ary and March in 2011 re­ceived over 400mm of rain and in 2010, over 350mm. Usu­ally, we get only half of that. Pre­vi­ously, the weather was so dry that the soil was all cracked up. Dur­ing that time, the vil­lagers would flock to the fields to play kites. Now, you don’t see that any­more.”

In 2012, the dry sea­son was not as wet and this year, things re­turned to nor­mal. But the two years of ex­tremely wet weather have wrought enough dam­age. The soft soil poser sur­faced in 2011 and just kept wors­en­ing.

“Pre­vi­ously, the prob­lem was iso­lated, one hectare here and there. Then sud­denly, we see so many farm­ers fac­ing this prob­lem,” says Nasirud­din.

In early 2012, 6,230ha were af­flicted. A year later, it ex­panded by 30% to 8,107ha. This is 8% of Muda’s to­tal area of 96,580ha, and the land is owned by some 3,877 farm­ers. The worst af­fected farms are in Pen­dang and Ji­tra.

“In some ar­eas, the hard pan is al­ready dam­aged and no longer there. Some farm­ers can­not plant at all and have stopped cul­ti­vat­ing. Some still cul­ti­vate but are un­sure if they can har­vest at the end of the sea­son be­cause ma­chines can­not go into the fields,” says Nasirud­din.

One of the af­fected farm­ers, Ah­mad Din, 58, also notes the change in the weather pat­tern.

“The dry sea­son is short nowa­days, just at the end of Fe­bru­ary to early March. The dry sea­son is im­por­tant for farm­ers as this is when we plough the fields and level the earth.”

He, too, stopped cul­ti­vat­ing paddy on his 4ha of fields for the 2012/2013 plant­ing sea­son, and lost in­come of about RM16,000.

Nasirud­din notes that while the an­nual rain­fall over Muda re­mains un­changed at 2,200mm to 2,400mm, the rain­fall pat­tern has.

“The dis­tri­bu­tion over the year no longer fol­lows the pat­tern of pre­vi­ous years,” he says. In Novem­ber 2010, the rain that fell over three days was equiv­a­lent to that which nor­mally falls in a month.

Oc­to­ber is usu­ally the wettest month but this year, it was very dry for the first two weeks and then it rained ev­ery­day, caus­ing floods in Kuala Nerang.

Nasirud­din says flood­ing, which never oc­curred in the 1970s and only spo­rad­i­cally through­out the 1980s and 1990s, has grown in fre­quency since 2000. It has be­come an an­nual af­fair since 2005, af­fect­ing river­ine flood plains and low-ly­ing ar­eas. In 2010 alone, there were three ma­jor floods which dam­aged over a quar­ter of the paddy fields.

He says land-clear­ing in up­stream de­velop-

Sav­ing the fields: by clos­ing his fields for one sea­son to al­low the earth to dry up, ba­harom Kasim could plant paddy again. be­fore that, the prob­lem of soft soil caused by wet weather had made farm­ing al­most im­pos­si­ble in parts of the Muda agri­cul­tural scheme in Kedah. (Inset, from left) rain­fall over the Muda area no longer fol­lows the pat­tern of pre­vi­ous years, says Mada ir­ri­ta­tion and drainage unit di­rec­tor nasirud­din ab­dul­lah. rice farmer ah­mad din says the dry sea­son is much shorter th­ese days. — Pho­tos: SaM THaM/The Star

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