The fierce sunlight bakes the fields and the winter crop of potatoes is still under the soil. Fifty-five year old Nepalese farmer Badri Prasad Humagain sits in his front yard looking out at his small field. His village in the Kathmandu Valley is called Pani Tanki, which means “water tank”, but it no longer lives up to that name. Humagain said that “apart from crop price fluctuations, the biggest worry for the farmers here is the worsening water shortage. The rainy season is shorter, and the rains less.” This isn’t the only unusual weather phenomenon: an unprecedented frost recently devastated crops in the nearby town of Dhulikhel.
Nepal is a low-income country and agriculture is the backbone of its economy, accounting for 40% of its GDP. Twenty million of the country’s 25 million people work in agriculture.This makes the joint climate change adaptation programme started by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Norwegian government of great importance to the people of Pani Tanki.
Water drying up
Nepal lies in the Himalayas, the part of the world that is thought to be most sensitive to climate change. The bulk of the country’s rainfall is concentrated in a three month rainy season, but climate change is lengthening the dry season and reducing precipitation. Places where water was once plentiful, such as Pani Tanki, now go thirsty.
Local farmers have had to start collecting domestic waste water for irrigation, while those who can afford it are drilling wells. Four years ago Humagain dug an 8-metre well which cost almost 40,000 Nepalese rupees (about US$480).
However, even the latter measure may not be enough. Water levels are now falling in his and other wells. This doesn’t necessarily mean the amount of water available has decreased, as water levels vary by location. Bed Mani Dahal from Kathmandu University argues that rainfall in the Jhikhukhola watershed, where the village is located, is plentiful enough to replace lost groundwater.
This isn’t the only problem with well water in the region. A survey by ICIMOD in 2001 found that increased use of agrochemicals has led to higher nitrate and phosphate levels in dug wells. Nitrate and phosphate levels in the area’s rivers are also too high for the water to be drunk.
A battle between organic agriculture and climate change
The problems with chemical pollution led Humagain to start organic farming. He explained his decision not to use fertiliser or pesticides by saying “we know they harm the food and the soil.” But as Nepal urbanises, the country is shifting from self-sufficient farming to commercial agriculture, and that means using more chemicals. Bel Presad Shrestha, who was town head of Dhulikhel for 16 years, says that overuse of chemicals is a common problem.
Another benefit of organic agriculture is that it saves water. Bed Mani Dahal told chinadialogue that “conventional agriculture uses 30-40% more water than organic.”
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements also believes organic agriculture can help farmers adapt to climate change. The organisation has produced a leaflet explaining that this method of farming increases the organic matter content of soil and soil coverage, thus making soil more resilient to floods, droughts and soil degradation. It also stresses that preserving biodiversity helps farmers develop new cropping systems to adapt to climate change, and reduces risks by stabilising ecosystems and crop yields.
The Nepalese government is aware of the problems of agricultural chemicals, and in some areas is promoting integrated pest control in order to reduce the use of pesticides. But athough there are small plots where organic practices are being demonstrated, farmers are still spraying chemicals over the neighbouring fields.
The government is also providing financial support. Ashok Kumar Battarai received government subsidies when he founded a biotech company that uses urban food waste as organic fertiliser. He also explained that the government covers half the cost of agricultural equipment for organic farmers. Non-profit organisations such as the Commercial Agricultural Alliance and the Nepalese Farming Institute are also running sustainable agriculture projects.
The rise of chemical agriculture
Like all countries that need to provide food for their citizens, Nepal must increase its agricultural yields – and that means more fertiliser and chemicals. According to the Himalayan Times the country’s fertiliser imports are rising. Its neighbour China abandoned organic methods almost entirely in the mid-twentieth century, when it shifted from traditional farming to chemical agriculture.
This brought greatly increased yields- it has been estimated that 57% of the increase that took place between 1978 and 2006 was due to the use of chemical fertilisers. But it wasn’t all good news – the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides continues to increase, resulting in the loss of soil nutrients, worsening soil acidification and decreased overall fertility. The benefits of chemicals may also have peaked; between 1977 and 2005 fertiliser use in China increased by 700%, while grain yields increased by only 71%. Meanwhile the increased use of fertilisers has pushed up production costs, led to widespread pollution and caused food safety concerns.
But in Nepal the rise of chemical agriculture has been closely followed by a wave of organic farming. In part this is due to increased global demand for organic products. One report found that although Europe and the US consume the most organic products, 80% of organic farming takes place in developing nations.
Bhattarai said that “demand for organic fertiliser rose from 100 to 500 tonnes over the last two years,” and he sees brighter prospects in the future. But at present the market is barely established, and the majority of farmers lack the strength to set prices or the motivation to grow organic crops.
Meng Si is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.