The link between water and food
Nepal’s position wedged between China and India has created a high degree of economic dependence, particularly on the southern neighbour, as it controls access to the sea and, through agreements of commerce and transit, may set the conditions for the exchange of goods and services. These attributes played a role in shaping the country’s predominantly agrarian economic status. But over the past two decades, the agricultural sector in Nepal has not been able to keep pace with ever-increasing food demand. From its position as a food exporter, the country has become a food deficit country. And food imports, mainly from India, have soared, increasing the trade deficit with that country. Growing more food and returning the country to its original status as a food exporter remains a daunting challenge.
Even though Nepal is considered as a country rich in water resources and periodic plans of the country have emphasized development of irrigation systems, there are not enough water resources as desired to produce more food. Although food production is the result of interactions between many agricultural inputs, water is the key ingredient. Irrigation management and access are critical in the context of farmers’ livelihoods and poverty. Many studies have pointed out that the performance of irrigation systems is far below initial predictions because the water supply is not adequate, efficient, reliable, flexible and equitable. Irrigation systems in Nepal are mainly run-of-the-river systems which offer little leverage to control the flow of water in the canals. In the dry season, water flows in almost all falling rivers. This does not support intensive irrigated crops, and only one crop during the monsoon season is usually grown.
Unless irrigation systems can promote intensive cultivation, actively engaging farmers for at least eight months of the year, the benefits envisioned in agriculture cannot be realized. Seasonal employment in agriculture is a cause of rural poverty, and people continue to seek better job opportunities. This is why most of the working age personnel (15-65 years old), which is expected to represent around 67% of the total population, migrate to the country’s urban centers or go abroad to find employment. Consequently, there is a shortage of labor during peak agricultural seasons, and large tracts of agricultural land are reported as uncultivated in many districts of the country.
Evidence shows that crop yields from irrigated areas that receive water on a demand basis are much higher than those from areas served by seasonal canal systems. When there is an assured supply of irrigation water, farmers are willing to invest in productive inputs and reap the maximum yields. In addition, the provision of adequate and timely irrigation can expand water supply to new control areas and increase cropping intensity. For example, ongoing inter-basin water diversion schemes like Bheri-Babai and Sunkoshi-Marin-Bagmati are expected to provide year-round irrigation to thousands of hectares of agricultural land in Banke and Bardia as well as in the districts of Sarlahi and Rautahat. These multipurpose irrigation-focused projects, along with many other benefits, will generate hydroelectricity and increase environmental flows to maintain the biodiversity of the river. These multi-purpose programs will be more cost effective because the two main components, irrigation and hydroelectricity, share the total cost. In this way, the water-food-energy-environment nexus will be maintained, which will ultimately play a key role in creating the sustainability of the system.
Nepal’s agricultural imports reached 325 billion rupees in 2020-21, 30% higher than the previous year. Rice is the most important food import. This requires changing our eating habits from rice to non-rice foods like corn, wheat, finger millet, barley and others that are locally produced and nutrient rich.
The country has no choice but to increase its agricultural production and become self-sufficient. This implies that the importance of irrigation is constantly increasing, since maintaining agricultural production depends not only on water productivity, but also on increasing the contribution of other growth factors such as than improved seeds and chemical fertilizers. The degree of control that an irrigation system allows is of the utmost importance. This suggests that the focus should be on reliable irrigation, which is also possible by creating water storage facilities. Water storage structures can be constructed by upgrading existing irrigation systems, improving farm-level water distribution networks, and providing new water storage reservoirs in systems to be constructed at the farm level. ‘to come up. Joint use of surface water and groundwater is another viable option, especially in the Tarai and valley bottoms. Rainwater harvesting is another major source of soil moisture enrichment.
Crop productivities in Nepal are well below their potential levels. Growth in agriculture is possible mainly through crop intensification rather than area expansion. High-yielding crop varieties, suitable for various agro-ecological zones, should be further developed through the promotion of agricultural research. The country imports chemical fertilizers mainly from our neighbours, and not getting the required quantity at the right time is an ongoing problem. The establishment of chemical fertilizer factories in the country and the promotion of balanced doses of organic and inorganic fertilizers to maintain soil health are essential for long-term sustainability.
Agricultural mechanization is another relevant area that requires special effort. At present, the availability of agricultural energy consists of 36% human energy, 41% animal energy and only 23% mechanical energy (92% in the Tarai). In addition, the promotion of four-wheel tractors and the increased use of tillers, threshers, seeders and combine harvesters will help reduce production costs. It would also solve labor shortages and lead to a market-oriented agricultural system. More research into this business is equally essential.
Nepal is an almost carbon neutral country. But due to global warming, water-induced weather disasters like floods, landslides, and droughts are becoming more frequent in recent times. Disaster preparedness and the adoption of soil water conservation measures will need to be prioritized in both national and local contexts. The country has only two options in the face of climate change: adapt or suffer because we can contribute very little in terms of mitigation. Of course, more global mitigation means less adaptation will be needed.
Nepal’s Agricultural Development Strategy (2015-35) envisaged notable dimensions including increased food and nutrition security, poverty reduction, higher and more equitable incomes for rural households, and strengthening farmers’ rights . Good governance, improved productivity, profitable marketing and competitiveness are the four strategic components that the country should pursue to achieve them.