Their eyes to the skies, farmers in Nepal look anxiously for signs of rain in a monsoon season that has been erratic at best. In a normal year, they would be busy planting rice by the last week of June as the monsoon sets in. This time, however, it has yet to rain properly and the farmers, who depend almost entirely on the monsoon for water, are getting desperate.

Though the government announced the onset of the monsoon officially on June 20, most parts of the country are yet to receive good rainfall. It is part of the prevalent pattern all over South Asia this year, with the rainfall delayed or scanty in most parts of India and Pakistan as well. Meteorologists around the world have ascribed this partly to the resurgence of the El Nino phenomenon in the eastern Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon that weakens the monsoon winds that blow from the southern Indian Ocean towards Asia.

“I don’t know why this delay in rainfall is happening but in recent years the monsoon prediction has been highly uncertain,” said Ratna Darai, 47, a farmer in Daraipadhera area who has been praying for the rains so he can get on with planting rice.

To make matters worse, pre-monsoon rainfall was also scarce, leaving farmers in trouble as they couldn’t sow last season’s rice on time (by April). “There was drought so we had to share the little water brought a long way from irrigation canals to the field. This delayed rice plantation resulting in a late harvest,” explained Darai.  The delayed harvest in turn delayed this season’s rice plantation.

“Life is becoming harder every year. It’s beyond our control … we can’t go beyond nature’s rule,” added Nir Bahadur Darai of the same village.

Ratna and Nir Bahadur Darai are but two cases in point; their concerns find echo elsewhere in the Himalayan country.  Eighty-year-old Chhabilal Bishwokarma, a blacksmith working near the highway in Damauli, has no land for farming but is worried at the trend of changing weather and upset farming schedules. “We used to plan a couple of months before for rice plantation… but maybe god is angry now so he is deceiving us,” said Bishwokarma, who hasn’t heard the term climate change but is able to discern the criticality of the concept.

About 40 km from Damauli is the tourist town of Pokhara, where farmers are also eagerly waiting for the rains. Gyan Bahadur Ale from Kamalbari, Tanahu, is amongst the lucky farmers whose field is near the irrigation canal. “My field is a bit like wetland that keeps water and also needs less water so I used irrigation water and planted rice on time,” he said.

Irrigation is the key. According to the Nepal government’s irrigation department, about 40% of the total land area in the country has irrigation facilities at least for one season but only 15% land has round the year irrigation. “Farmers have to depend heavily on rainfall for irrigation … a delay of even a few days affects the whole year’s agriculture schedule,” said Uddhav Adhikari, president of the National Farmers Group Federation.

According to government figures, agriculture accounts for about 33% of Nepal’s GDP. Of this, rice contributes a hefty 21%.  The scanty rainfall spells trouble with officials estimating that only about 10% of rice had been planted till now. It was almost double at this point last year. “Insufficient water due to weak monsoon is the reason for this; the monsoon rainfall was better last year than this year,” said Ram Prasad Pulami, joint secretary at the Ministry of Agricultural Development.

Though reasoned as an effect of climate change by some, experts are unwilling to attribute the erratic monsoon solely to climate change. “We have seen changes but it’s not uniform and the monsoon could be affected by many factors, including climate change. So, in general, yes, the prediction of monsoon has become tougher but available research and data is not enough to just blame it solely,” said Rajendra Shrestha, former head of the Meteorological Forecasting Division of the  Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.

In his view, the dates of the arrival and retreat of the monsoon are not the only important factors; how the rainfall pattern changes within the monsoon period also counts. He agrees that the pattern is changing more rapidly. The normal onset date for the monsoon is June 10 for eastern Nepal and June 12 for Kathmandu, but this rarely happens.  Weather experts say one week before or after is normal but the fluctuation has been fairly high in the last decade.

The scarcity of rain is compounded by the scarcity of labour.  “Even if you have water, how will you plant rice? Most of the youth are abroad and you can’t get even a few workers even after searching the village,” said Laxman Gauli, 45, from Ranigaun village in Tanahu.

Studies suggest more than 300,000 people migrate for work from Nepal every year beyond India and about 30% of the households have at least one member of their family abroad.

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