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As floods rise, government insurance shores up Bangladesh farmers

by Mosabber Hossain | @BdRibon | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 March 2021 09:40 GMT

Hafizur Rahman stands on his land where last year his rice crops were destroyed by flooding, in Kurigram, Bangladesh, February 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

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A new state-backed insurance scheme, which is affordable for small-scale farmers, aims to help them recover from extreme weather shocks and ease pressure to seek work in cities

* Bangladesh's state-backed climate insurance launched last year

* More than 20,000 farmers covered in flood-prone northern region

* Climate experts warn scheme needs sustainable future funding

By Mosabber Hossain

KURIGRAM, Bangladesh, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Last year, Hafizur Rahman's entire rice crop drowned in floodwaters that followed heavy rain in northern Bangladesh.

The loss forced the 30-year-old farmer from Kurigram district to look for daily labouring work, hoping to scrape together enough money for seed to plant a new 8-acre (3-hectare) rice crop this year.

"I invested all my money in this crop," he said. "If I can manage some money, I'll again farm rice on my land. If I don't, I'll migrate to the capital and start work as a rickshaw puller," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As climate change fuels extreme weather, including worsening floods and droughts, more farmers like Rahman are seeing their crops devastated, driving growing migration to already overcrowded cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.

But Bangladesh's first state-backed farm insurance scheme, launched last year and with 20,000 farmers now onboard, could help stem that flow, by giving farmers the resources they need to restart production after big losses.

When farmers sign up to the subsidised programme, they pay 25% of the cost of seasonal insurance and get up to 10,000 taka ($120) if crops are damaged by a climate event, said Abdul Karim, manager at the finance ministry's Sadharan Bima Corporation (SBC), which provides the policies.

Implemented with funding and support from aid charity Oxfam Bangladesh and the Asian Development Bank, the first phase of the programme - which focuses on the flood-prone northeastern region - will cost the government 210 million taka, he added.

Babul Miah replants his fields near the Brahmaputra River in Jatrapurup village after his crops were destroyed by floods in July 2020, in Kurigram district, Bangladesh, February 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

With insurance to help them bounce back from floods and drought, fewer farmers will be forced to find new ways to make a living, said Ainun Nishat, climate expert and professor at BRAC University in Dhaka.

Keeping more people in farming will help Bangladesh feed its citizens, he said, in a country where about a quarter of people struggle to get enough food, according to the World Food Programme.

That will also ease pressure on urban areas, whose population has boomed from 48 million to nearly 65 million over the past decade, in large part due to rural inhabitants moving to Dhaka and other cities after leaving farming, Nishat said.

"The agricultural sector suffered the most last year due to abnormal weather conditions," he added, noting that almost half of Bangladeshis work in farming.

"Now, farmers can be protected through agricultural insurance. It will help (them) to be more self-sufficient."

Farmer Ayub Ali sits on a riverbank that has been eroded by massive flooding in Raniganj village, in the Kurigram district of Bangladesh, February 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain


The Bangladesh government's move into agricultural insurance comes at a time when a growing number of farmers are seeking financial protection against severe weather.

When Cyclone Amphan hit the country in May 2020, battering farms in Sunamganj, a wetland ecosystem in the northeast, more than 300 farmers in the area had already signed up for private insurance through Oxfam.

The charity had covered the premiums in full, and by July that year the farmers had received their payments.

"After Amphan, my crop was totally damaged," said rice farmer Rokon Uddin, who suffered losses worth 4,000 taka.

"But because of the insurance policy, I received 6,000 taka and started to crop my land again. The insurance was really helpful."

Uddin's farm is insured by Green Delta Insurance, a leading private firm that has offered climate coverage to farmers since 2015, according to its executive vice president Shubasish Barua.

It provides seasonal climate insurance for 60,000 farmers, most of them in northern regions, he added.

Food ministry figures show Sunamganj district has suffered the biggest crop losses in recent years, with flash flooding in March and April 2017 causing 30 billion taka of damage.

Dipti Rani, who received an insurance payment after her animals died in floods last year, stands in front of her home on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, in Kurigram, Bangladesh, February 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain


For Bangladeshi farmers who struggle to afford insurance, policies with the government-backed programme are up to five times cheaper than private premiums and usually pay out 100% of the replanting cost, noted climate expert Khalilullah Jibon.

Even so, encouraging farmers to sign up has been a challenge, said Syed Shahriyar Ahsan, managing director at SBC.

He and his team explain the benefits of the insurance at village meetings and workshops, but it is a slow process.

"This awareness will not be possible for us to raise alone. The support of other departments of the government is also needed," he added.

Climate experts also question how the programme can stay funded into the future.

"The Bangladeshi government has to provide subsidies every year, which is not sustainable," said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a non-governmental organisation working on sustainable development.

He recommended some of the money spent on aid in response to climate disasters be redirected into insurance, which would cut down the number of farmers who need assistance.

"The government and NGOs spend huge amounts of money on relief distribution, flood damage and rehabilitation. They can invest some of that into climate insurance premiums," he said.

Climate change minister Shahab Uddin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the government has plans to fund the farm insurance programme with climate finance from developed nations, promised under the Paris climate accord.

For Dipti Rani, 33, climate insurance gave her whole family a chance to restart their lives after a major flood.

When she bought ducks, chickens and a goat last year, she hoped they would supplement her husband's income as a fisherman and help pay for their daughter's education.

But when flooding hit their home on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in July 2020, the animals died - and without the extra money, Rani's daughter had to stop going to school.

Earlier this year, Rani received a 2,700 taka pay-out from her private insurance policy, which allowed her to buy medicines and birthing aids to resell to local pregnant women.

Now she can again contribute to her family's finances.

"I'm happy and my daughter started going to school," Rani said. "Climate insurance is good for us."

($1 = 84.3700 taka)

(Reporting by Mosabber Hossain; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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