Until a few years ago, Nepal’s porous border with India was a fertilizer pipeline - and lifeline - for farmers who faced stock-outs at home. But now the supply and quality are unreliable, leaving Nepali farmers to coax crops from soil that is growing steadily poorer by using organic compost or sub-standard chemical fertilizers.
“I have little choice but to use the smuggled stuff,” said Padme Kami, 60, in Banke District, a farming area where some 340 families live. He buys fertilizer from India at 34 rupees (39 US cents) per kilogram - the same price as government-subsidized fertilizer. “But it does not work,” he said.
Yields are lower and laboratory analyses conducted in 2011 showed the chemical makeup of these fertilizers was not as advertised, said the district’s agriculture extension worker, Sher Bahadur.
Nepal’s Ministry of Agriculture estimated that fertilizer cost up to three times as much in Nepal as in neighbouring India due to differences in government subsidies. It put the annual quantity of chemical fertilizers needed to produce enough to feed the country’s 30 million people adequately at 500 tons.
In 2012, it will be able to secure less than 150 tons, said the Agriculture Ministry’s joint secretary, Hari Dahal. The gap has stayed the same for several years.
The government has allocated three billion rupees for fertilizer ($33.4 million), or 25 percent of the overall agriculture budget. The 2012-13 budget earmarks an additional one billion rupees for fertilizer subsidies ($11 million).
But with a recently dissolved parliament, a fragmented ruling party, and only one month to go before the budget must be finalized for the next fiscal year, former finance minister and opposition party leader Ram Sharan Mahat said it was not clear what would happen. “We cannot be increasing the budget without full political consensus,” he told IRIN.
Nepal has had five prime ministers in the past four years. In 2006 a decade of civil war ended, and in 2008 a parliament was elected to draft a new constitution, but it has missed four constitutional deadlines and sought a fifth extension in late May, which the Supreme Court denied.
Meanwhile, farmers in the mid-western hills of Salyan District, adjacent to Banke District, 320km west of the capital, Kathmandu, still face the fertilizer problem. “We do not even get the smuggled kind here - it is just too far,” said Meena Gharti, 50, a farmer in the mountain community of Kupindedaha, where some 5,200 residents are a two-hour trek from a passable road.
Salyan District’s senior officer at the District Agriculture Development Office, Chet Narayan Pande, said farmers have increasingly turned to organic composting by mixing cattle waste and leaves. Farmers in neighbouring Banke District - a plains area with less forestry and grazing areas - have more access to chemical fertilizer because the roads are better and they are closer to India, but they lack the materials to make enough homemade fertilizer, said a group of farmers IRIN met in Banibhar village.
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|More than half the country's population depends on agriculture for their livelihood|
Organic compost is one solution, but it is insufficient and inadequate, said the agriculture ministry’s Dahal. In 2012, the government purchased 5,000 tons of organic compost from local manufacturers, along with 42,000 litres of liquid fertilizer from Spain, but these products are too weak for the mostly improved varieties of seeds for cereal production, which Dahal estimated 80 percent of farmers were using.
A preliminary assessment of the 2011-12 harvest and outlook for winter crops by the government, the World Food Programme (WFP), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was positive overall. Increases of 4-13 percent over the previous harvest are projected for the main crops - rice, millet and maize - but the assessment noted that the gains were not even, and shortages were forecast in the mid-western hills and mountains.
Currently, 27 of Nepal’s 75 districts are labelled as “food deficit”, meaning that some 3.5 million people are experiencing “moderate to severe” shortages, and they do not have access to enough food to stave off hunger, or obtain sufficient calories to work, study and get through the day.
Nepal has a mountainous north, hilly terrain in the centre and plains in the south. The shortages are deepest in pockets of the western hills and mountains.
Chemical fertilizers are not produced domestically, mainly due to a shortage of energy, said Dahal. He estimated that it would take100 megawatts of power to run a plant, in a country where daily power outages last for hours, even in Kathmandu.
District agriculture officers have called on the national government to promote organic composting as a stop-gap solution, but Dahal is optimistic that neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and China will be able to help. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region, railway construction that started in 2010 in the city of Shigatse may facilitate fertilizer deliveries.
FAO’s assistant representative, Binod Saha, said fertilizer use by farmers has been “haphazard” because they have not been taught how to analyse soils or apply correct dosages. “Balanced fertilizer use is lacking - each type of fertilizer has a different role.”
FAO has been running a pilot programme of 133 “farmer field schools” in 17 districts across the country, which focus on judicious fertilizer use, among other things. The project began in 2009 and will continue for another 15 months.
Less than half of the cultivable land is irrigated - 47.5 percent, according to the most recent government estimates - leaving farmers to rely on often erratic rainfall to grow their crops, said Saha.
The National Agriculture Research Centre estimates that with good seeds and adequate water, Nepal could boost its agriculture yield by up to 20 percent.