Training farmers to adapt to unpredictable weather

Rising temperatures, drought, floods and landslides have combined to kill crops and leave millions hungry in Nepal.



“Those traditional crops like rice, potatoes, wheat, maize, which were doing well decades ago are not doing so well recently,” said Gehendra Gurung, Nepal programme leader of international NGO Practical Action.



The number of highly food insecure people in Nepal - a country of about 29 million people still recovering from 10 years of armed conflict that ended in 2006 - has tripled in the last three years to more than 3.7 million, according to the UN World Food Programme. In the drought-prone, remote mountains of the west, three out of every five children are underweight because of malnutrition.



However, revamping traditional farming practices with improved irrigation practices and new crop strains to adapt to climate change could alleviate food insecurity.



“Farmers continue to practice the traditional way of farming because they remain unaware of the ecological changes being caused by climate change and lack knowledge about new agricultural technologies,” Gurung said.



Practical Action is one of many organizations teaching farmers in remote areas about the impact of climate change on agriculture and training them to use low water-fed irrigation technology or find new crop species.



Unpredictable rains



More than 80 percent of the country’s agricultural output depends on rain. There is still no efficient irrigation system in place, with farmers depending instead on rain-fed farming.



“Historically speaking, we always had timely rainfall for agricultural production, which is why farmers never adopted new practices to retain moisture in the soil,” said Prabin Man Singh, climate change researcher with Oxfam.



However, precipitation has been uneven, resulting in drought in the western hill region and the eastern part of the Terai region stretching along the border with India; and floods and landslides in the mid-western region.














Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
Traditional crops like rice, potatoes, wheat, and maize have all been affected

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Nepal gets 1,500mm of rain per year, but the government’s meteorology department recorded precipitation in May at 200 percent above normal in the south-central part of the western region, and 40 percent below normal in two other patches of the west.



Meanwhile, Nepal’s temperatures have risen 1.8 degrees Celsius over the last three decades - an average of 0.06 degrees per year, according to the meteorology department.



With such changes in climate, it is no longer practical to rely on unpredictable rains, Singh said.



“We have to build conservation ponds that will collect rainwater to help recharge water resources, so hopefully in the next monsoon season, families will have improved [access] to water.”



More help for farmers



Officials from various ministries are now incorporating climate change into national agricultural policies, including the National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), likely to be finalized and approved within the next few months.



NAPA focuses on agriculture and food security, water resources and energy, climate change-induced disasters, public health, and forestry and biodiversity.



NGO and UN initiatives to introduce alternative farming practices are also under way.



Since January, FAO has been supporting more than 100,600 farmers in the 10 most food insecure districts with improved varieties of seeds and cereals, in addition to training them on improved agricultural practices.



“This is going to improve the productivity of farmers by 25 to 30 percent and consequently improve food security and decrease their food deficit for months,” said Xavier Bouan, senior project manager of the FAO’s Emergency Rehabilitation and Coordination Unit.



FAO will also introduce a “system of rice intensification”, which requires less water and is appropriate for areas with uncertain rainfall. Still, the agency says more investment is needed to assist Nepalese farmers and ensure long-term food security, instead of reliance on food aid.



“Agricultural development has been somewhat overlooked by the government and its development partners,” said Bui Thi Lan, FAO country representative in Nepal. “The government’s number one concern is political stability… It is more difficult to mobilize funds for agricultural activities than demining activities, for example, or the reintegration of ex-combatants.”



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