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Dr. Sara L. Bennett, Water Environment International / Northwest Hydraulic Consultants, Dhaka, Bangladesh / Edmonton, Canada
Dr. Atiq Rahman and Dr. Saleem Huq, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, Dhaka, Bangladesh

This paper was originally published in: Proceedings, Asian Farming Systems Research/Extension Symposium, 19 - 23 November 1991, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.  NB: this online version is for general information only.  Published version is authoritative.


Climate changes predicted as a result of anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases include various specific effects of relevance to farming systems of the Asia-Pacific region: sea level rise, higher tropical surface temperatures, increased tropical cyclone frequency and severity, and changes in cloud cover and precipitation. Increased ultraviolet radiation due to ozone layer depletion by chlorofluorohydrocarbons (CFCs) may also affect elements of farming systems.

These climatic changes have numerous implications for farming systems. Many are rather obvious: rising sea level, in the absence of defensive measures, would gradually inundate coastal farmland, forcing shifts to more salt-tolerant activities like shrimp farming and, ultimately, coastline retreat; more and stronger cyclones would cause more crop damage; and changes in precipitation would reduce economic returns on existing water resources infrastructural investment in affected areas, to name but three examples. Other effects more subtle effects are also possible, such as changes in natural plant propagation rates and species mix and in plant disease patterns.

For the future, it will be important to work towards an integrated understanding of climatic, demographic, economic, and technological change. Methodologies need to be developed for weaving climate change considerations appropriately into long-term farming system monitoring programs, and into our understanding of the future evolution of rural economies in general and of farming systems in particular.


Greenhouse gases [carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, CFCs, etc.] are increasing in the atmosphere as a result of various human activities, including combustion of fossil and biomass fuels, deforestation, and expansion of some types of agricultural activities. The overall global warming effects of these increased greenhouse gases is well understood (USEPA, 1989); less so are the regional and higher-order (e.g. hydrologic) effects. The current scientific consensus is that global warming effects have not yet been observed, though controversial claims to the contrary have been made (Schneider, xx).

The CFCs, by a completely different physical mechanism, also act to deplete the ozone layer thereby increasing the amount of UV-B radiation reaching the earth's surface.

Most global warming predictions are made for a "2xCO2 world", that is, for the time-frame when greenhouse gas concentrations (converted and summed to CO2 equivalent concentration) will have reached twice the pre-industrial level. At current emission rates, 2xCO2 will be reached in year 2030; at reduced emission rates now proposed, 2xCO2 would be delayed to about year 2060. The predictions are based on computer models of the atmospheric general circulation, historical climate observations, and other information.

Current scientific estimates of climate change are as follows. For global warming-related effects, two types of numbers are given: (i) total values for 2xCO2 conditions and (ii) the rates corresponding to 2xCO2 changes occurring the over the period 1990-2060. The predicted changes are:

Global average changes

  • Surface temperature, averaged globally and annually, is expected to have risen by between 2.8 and 5.2 C at 2xCO2 (0.028 to 0.074 C per decade).
  • Sea level, averaged globally and annually, is expected to have risen by between 0.3 and 0.8 m at 2xCO2 (4 to 11 cm per decade). Sea level rise thereafter is expected to accelerate, rising a total of 0.5 to 2 meters between 1990 and 2100.
  • The global hydrologic (evaporation/precipitation etc.) cycle is expected to strengthen generally, implying greater global average evaporation, precipitation, cloud cover, stream flow, runoff. Precipitation is expected to increases by 7.1 to 15.8% (Karl et al. 1989, cited in USEPA, p. 24).
  • Increased UV-B (290-315 nm) radiation from ozone layer depletion (Caldwell et al., 1989)
  • Regional effects.
    • Surface temperature will rise more near the poles than in the tropics (1 to 3 C; Dickinson, 1986.)
    • Sea level rise and land subsidence are additive. Subsidence is characteristic of deltas of embanked rivers, deltas with declining groundwater/petroleum levels, and certain continental margins (e.g northeastern U.S.).
    • Rainy season precipitation will likely hold steady or increase in the wet tropics and could decrease or become more variable in the semi-arid tropics (while decreasing in mid-latitude summer) but climate model precipitation results are somewhat contradictory (Crosson, 1989).
    • Area of occurrence, seasonal duration, and intensity of cyclones could change. But even the sign of these changes is uncertain: frequency of tropical cyclones in the north Indian Ocean during the last 30 years was found to be inversely correlated with sea-surface temperature even though the energy source for the cyclones is the heat in the surface mixed layer (McBride, 1989).
    • Tropical UV-B flux after ozone depletion could exceed that experienced anywhere on earth in recent geological history, since the highest naturally occurring UV-B fluxes are at the equator (Caldwell et. al., 1989).
    Probability effects.
    • Other things being equal, as mean magnitudes increase, extreme events of a given magnitude occur more frequently. For example, in a location where 5.0 m above mean sea level (MSL) occurs once every 10 years on average and 5.5 m once every 30 years, a sea level rise of 0.5 m will make the 5.5 m event three times more frequent. Similar arguments apply number of temperature etc. extrema.
    • Other things being equal, variances increase as means increase.


    Current understanding of the effect of these climatic changes on farming systems is not very far advanced, with research interest in mid-latitude agriculture predominating in the literature. The possible impacts of climate change on farming systems include:
    • Changes in water resources demand and availability. Precipitation, evaporation, transpiration, etc., can all change. Flood control, drainage, and irrigation infrastructure will have to evolve with the changes, which makes longer-term (greater than 50 year life-span) developments less attractive unless they can be updated and modified. Existing long-lived infrastructure may be outpaced.
    • Longer growing season in frost-affected areas. In the Asian context, this affects upland farmers in Nepal, Bhutan, China, etc.
    • Changes in self-propagation of perennials. For farming systems incorporating naturally propagating forest or range land, changes in the rates of propagation and species mix will likely track changes in climatic conditions (Davis, 1989).
    • Greater risks for monoculture. Compared to countries (and by extension farming systems) with diversified agricultural production, those reliant on only one or few principle commodities are at higher risk from climate change (Riebsame, 1989), just as they are from extreme weather events, pests, etc.
    • Changes in disease and pest ranges and severity. Changes in temperature, hydrologic regime, frost dates, etc., will affect disease and pest prevalence, and host susceptibility.
    • Coastal inundation, saline groundwater intrusion, drainage congestion. As sea level rises, low-lying countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, low islands e.g. Maldives) will be affected. The expense and difficulty of defensive measures (hard or soft) and of resettlement is well known (Broadus and Milliman, xx).
    • Interactions between impacts. Findings so far tend to suggest that responses of farming system elements to climate change forcings may often be non-linear, that is, with changes in one climate parameter (e.g. precipitation) modulating the response to changes in other parameters (e.g. UV-B) (Tevini and Teramura, 1989).


    In much of the Asia-Pacific region, the context within which climatic change will occur is characterized by sweeping transformations that are proceeding roughly an order of magnitude faster than changes in climate. Upper-bound (and widely questioned) estimates of sea level rise imply that on the order of 10% of Bangladesh's land area will be inundated by 2050, while conservative population projections indicate 100% growth over this period; at the same time, high rates of agricultural intensification, industrialization, and urbanization are also transforming the economic and technological basis of Bangladesh farming systems. But as increasing landlessness is a key problem in Bangladesh, potential sea level rise should continue to be monitored. In other regional settings, climatic change may be one of the dominant processes. The low islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, much of whose total area is very low and coastal could be disastrously affected by sea level rise and increasing cyclone activity.


    Crosson, P., 1989: Climate change and mid-latitudes agriculture - perspectives on consequences and policy responses. Climatic Change,15 (1/2), 51-74.

    Caldwell, M. M., A. H. Teramura, and M. Tevini, 1989: The changing solar ultraviolet climate and the ecological consequences for higher plants. Tree, 4 (12), 363 - 366.

    Davis, M. B., 1989: Lags in vegetation response to greenhouse warming. Climatic Change 15 (1/2), 75-82.

    Dickinson, R.E., 1986: How will climate change? The climate system and modelling of future climate. In: B. Bolin, B.R. Doos, J. Jager, and R.A. Warrick (editors), The greenhouse effect, climatic change, and ecosystems, Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) 29, John Wiley, Chichester, 207-270.

    Karl, T. R., H. Diaz, and T. Barnett, 1989: Climate variations of the past century and the greenhouse effect (a report based on the First Climate Trends Workshop). National Climate Program Office/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Rockville, MD.

    McBride, J. L., 1989: The effect of greenhouse warming on global tropical cyclone activity. In: The greenhouse effect and coastal area of Bangladesh - proceedings of an international conference, Dhaka, 9th March 1989, H. J. Moudud, H. Rashid, A. Rahman, M. Hossain (editors), 56-58.

    Riebsame, W. E., 1989: Assessing the social implications of climate fluctuations - a guide to climate impact studies. World Climate Impacts Programme, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 83 pp.

    Tevini, M., and A. H. Teramura, 1989: UV-B effects on terrestrial plants. Photochemistry and Photobiology 50 (4), 479-487.

    United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), 1989: The potential effects of global climate change on the United States. J. B. Smith and D. Tirpak, editors. 412 pp.

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