Using Training and Grants, Nepal Tries to Stem Exodus of Farmers Discouraged by Effects of Climate Change

Jagan Nath Dulal, 50, checks a bitter gourd plant on his farm in Kavrepalanchok district. He used to grow rice, but irregular rainfall ruined his paddy crops. Dulal now grows seasonal vegetables. He does not expect his sons, ages 14 and 12, to take up farming. “Ten years ago, I saved 30,000 rupees ($305) to 40,000 rupees ($407) every year from rice farming, but now I don’t make any savings,” he says. “I am too old to go abroad for work, but when my sons reach 18 years, I will send them abroad.” Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal

Nepalese farmers are increasingly giving up on agriculture and opting for foreign employment because increased temperatures and irregular rainfall have destroyed their crops and reduced crop yields.

PANCHKHAL, NEPAL – The farmer looks up at the clear blue sky, searching for clouds. The scorching heat engulfs her as she stands on the cracked earth of her barren rice field one day in August.

The rains are more than two months late, and Laxmi Thapa has no water with which to irrigate her rice field.

Thapa, 30, lives in Panchkhal village in Kavrepalanchok district in Nepal with her son and daughter and her husband’s parents and two sisters.

Rice farming sustained her husband’s family for generations, Thapa says. The family grew rice on its 27,380-square-foot (2,543-square-meter) farm as far back as its members can remember.

But the family has not planted rice since 2009.

The family had experienced irregular rainfall and poor crops for a few years, but in 2002 the farmers noticed a clear change in the weather, Thapa says. In addition to irregular and inadequate rainfall, they experienced warmer temperatures and an increase in crop pests. Their yields began to diminish.

With the crops failing regularly, Thapa’s husband, Sunil, went to Qatar to work as a restaurant cook.

“If the climate had favored agriculture, he wouldn’t have had to work hard in a foreign country,” Thapa says.

Eleven years ago, irrigation was not a problem, Thapa says.

“We could produce any crop we wanted,” she says. “The nearby river flowed year-round, and there was no pest infestation. Today, we are living in hardship as the river has dried up and the land is barren.”

Until around 2002, the family saved 30,000 Nepalese rupees ($307) to 50,000 rupees ($512) every year, Thapa says.

Now Thapa grows a few seasonal vegetables on about 11,000 square feet (1,000 square meters) of land and earns about 10,000 rupees ($102) to 15,000 rupees ($153) a year, she says.

Her husband sends home 40,000 rupees ($409) every month. Those are the only sources of income for the family of seven.

“There is nothing but loss in farming,” she says.

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Laxmi Thapa, 30, inspects the remaining bean plants after a recent pest infestation on her family’s vegetable plot in Nepal’s Kavrepalanchok district. Thapa and her husband grew rice and vegetables on their land until 2009, but they stopped growing rice because rainfall became irregular. Her husband now works as a restaurant cook in Qatar to support the family.

Many other men in Panchkhal have also given up farming and gone abroad for work, Thapa says. The working-age men of almost all the farming families in the village have migrated for work.

“This year, due to the lack of rainfall, more than half of the land in the village is barren,” she says. “How can we farmers survive when our fields are barren?”

The rising temperatures and irregular rainfall caused by climate change have had a devastating impact on Nepal’s agricultural sector. To discourage young farmers from giving up and heading abroad for work, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations have begun providing them with training and grants.

Nepal has a varied and complex climate, driven by the contrasting terrain and regional weather systems, according to an April 2014 report by Nepal’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

Within a few hundred kilometers (a kilometer is about three-fifths of a mile), the country rises from the Terai plains – with a low point of only 70 meters (229 feet) above sea level – to the top of Mount Everest at 8,850 meters (29,035 feet).

That topography drives strong temperature gradients across the country, from the hot plains to the cold mountains, according to the report. Exceptional climate variability and extreme weather events are common.

Climate-sensitive activities like agriculture make up a large proportion of the country’s gross domestic product. Because Nepal’s agriculture is predominantly small-scale and heavily dependent on natural rainfall, the country experiences large annual variations in GDP, according to the report.

The impacts of climate change – extreme temperatures, irregular rainfall, and droughts – have contributed to an overall drop in Nepal’s agricultural production, says Ghanashyam Malla, senior agronomist of the Agricultural Environment Research Division under the Ministry of Agricultural Development.

As temperatures rise and production drops, more families are leaving agriculture, Malla says.

In 2001, 76 percent of Nepalese depended on agriculture for survival, says Tek Prasad Luitel, assistant spokesperson for the Ministry of Agricultural Development. By 2011, that figure had dropped to 66.

“Every year farmers are giving up agricultural farming,” Malla says. “They are doing so because of the decrease in their farm yield.”

No study has been conducted on the overseas migration of farmers, says Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist and founder of the Nepal Institute of Development Studies.

But judging by the high numbers of men and women who have migrated overseas from traditional farming communities, experts believe most of the Nepalese going overseas for employment are farmers or come from farming families, he says.

An estimated 439,480 Nepalese men and women went abroad for work in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Ministry of Labor and Employment’s Department of Foreign Employment.

More than 3.2 million Nepalese men and women under 45 traveled abroad for work between 1993 and 2013, according to the department.

Prakash Mathema, joint secretary and chief of the Climate Change Management Division at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, says that although more than two-thirds of Nepalese are dependent on agriculture, the sector’s contribution to the national economy is declining.

Agriculture contributed 34 percent of the country’s GDP in the 2013-14 fiscal year, down sharply from 65 percent in fiscal 1965-66.

Until the 1970s, Nepal exported rice and wheat to India, Mathema says. For the past 10 years, it has instead imported rice and wheat from India.

Nepal imported 76 billion rupees ($770 million) worth of food in the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the Trade and Export Promotion Center of the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies. That was up from 4.5 billion rupees ($46 million) in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

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Laxmi Thapa’s once-fertile rice and vegetable fields lie barren. She grows seasonal vegetables in a small area of her family’s land to earn some extra income, but she has to irrigate the land by fetching water from a river that is a 20-minute walk away. (Kalpana Khanal, GPJ)

Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal

Because Nepal’s mountainous topography makes it difficult to develop a national irrigation system, crops are grown on only three-fourths of the country’s 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of arable land, Luitel says.

Owing to poor rainfall, only 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) were cultivated from June 2013 to August 2014, he says.

Lacking irrigation systems, 65 percent of Nepalese farmers depend on rainwater for crop cultivation, says Hari Krishna Upreti, a senior scientist at the ministry.

Rainfall in Nepal was once regular, Upreti says. The monsoon would begin in early June and last until the end of September. This year, the monsoon did not start until August.

The change in the rainfall pattern has had the most profound impact on rice cultivation, Nepal’s staple crop. At least 50 percent of cultivable land was barren until the monsoon rains arrived in August, Upreti estimates.

An increase in temperatures has also contributed to a drop in crop productivity.

Temperatures in Nepal have risen steadily in recent decades. From 1976 to 2005, the average maximum temperature increased by .06 degrees Celsius (.1 degree Fahrenheit) a year, according to research by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

The temperature increase has caused new diseases and pests in crops, Malla says, and warmer weather and irregular rainfall have diminished crops’ immunity to disease and pestilence.

The poor conditions make it unlikely that crops will flourish, Upreti says.

“Because of low rainfall and heat stress, crops are destroyed even before being planted in the field,” he says. “So we can easily assume that there will be a decrease in our production of rice this year.”

The decline in food production can be traced to around 2001, according to the National Census of Agriculture 2011-2012 published by the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Between 2001 and 2011, rice and wheat production decreased by 12 percent, while lentil production dropped by 21 percent, barley by 35 percent and buckwheat by 40 percent, according to the report.

Climate change has made farming in Nepal increasingly harder.

In August 2013, Bal Bahadur Basnet’s 16,400-square-foot (1,524-square-meter) farm in Rolpa district was buried under a landslide caused by heavy rains.

Basnet, his wife and five children were safe in their home 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away, but the family’s rice, maize, beans and millet were destroyed.

Since he could not grow any crops and had no other source of income, Basnet went to India that October. He got a job rolling chapatis, flatbreads, in a small restaurant in New Delhi, the capital of India.

But the 8,000 rupees ($82) that he earned each month was not enough to sustain his family in Nepal, he says. He returned home after six months.

Now, Basnet plans to go to Qatar. To finance his travel and pay 80,000 rupees ($818) to an employment agency, he sold the small bit of land that wasn’t destroyed by the landslide.

“I want to give a good education to my children, so I must go abroad so that my family can have a better life,” Basnet says.

The number of Nepalese migrating abroad to find employment has increased by 15 to 19 percent every year, Gurung says. The trend began in 1993 and 1994.

Farmers who cannot afford to travel to the Middle East simply cross the border to India in search of work, Gurung says.

An estimated 4 million Nepalese work in India, according to a 2013 National Planning Commission study.

Nepalese migrant workers send 311 billion rupees ($3.2 billion) home to their families every year, Gurung says, citing research he used in his 2013 book “Migration from Nepal: Policy and Reality.” That amounts to an average of 80,436 rupees ($818) a year per household. Remittances account for 23 percent of Nepal’s GDP.

“Climate change has become a big problem for a small country like Nepal,” Mathema says.

To stem the migration of farmers to foreign countries, the government has allocated 23 billion rupees ($238 million) to the development of the agricultural sector in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, Luitel says.

The government is also providing agricultural loans, ranging from 40,000 rupees ($406) to 400,000 rupees ($4,068), at subsidized interest rates to encourage young farmers to continue working in the agriculture sector, he says.

Since the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Directorate of Vegetable Development of the Ministry of Agricultural Development has allocated 92.6 million rupees ($941,822) as seed grants to 1,800 young vegetable farmers in 25 districts, says Anil Kumar Acharya, senior vegetable development officer.

“Nepalese youth are encouraged towards commercial vegetable farming due to the grant provided by the government,” Acharya says.

Jag Bhadhur Oli has taken advantage of the program to cultivate vegetables in Liwang village in Rolpa district.

Oli, 28, has grown cauliflower, tomatoes and other crops on his 49,284 square feet (4,578 square meters) of land since early 2013.

Before receiving the grant, Oli was a poultry farmer. Because he was not earning enough money to sustain his family, he sold off his business, planning to go abroad.

But upon hearing about opportunities available through the District Development Agriculture Committee, a committee of village representatives formed under the Ministry of Agricultural Development, Oli decided to join a training program and switch to vegetable farming, he says.

In 2013 he received a 40,000-rupee ($410) grant from the District Agricultural Development Office in Rolpa district to buy seeds and seven cows and set up a dairy business, Oli says. He also underwent a one-month training program on producing seasonal and offseason vegetable crops.

Now he earns more than 400,000 rupees ($4,100) every year, Oli says, adding that he would be working in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, now if he hadn’t received the loan and the training.

“I was fed up with this agricultural farm because of poor irrigation facilities in the village and uncertain rainfall pattern, which is the major cause of low production,” he says. “Now, I have training from district agricultural office to produce offseasonal vegetables and ideas for adaption for high production, so I have extra production on my farm.”

The Directorate of Vegetable Development has trained 2,100 farmers in technical aspects of modern farming, such as creating simple irrigation systems and building plastic tents to protect crops from extreme weather, Acharya says.

The directorate is also developing seeds that can withstand the effects of climate change, Acharya says.

Nongovernmental organizations also are helping Nepalese farmers maintain good production levels in the face of climate change.

Practical Action, an international nongovernmental organization, has been working with farmers in 10 districts in Nepal to create artificial ponds and irrigation canals and to promote rainwater harvesting, says Gehendra Bahadur Gurung, program chief of disaster reduction at the organization.

Since the project was launched in 2005, it has supported 5,000 farmers in the 10 districts.

“Because of the program, farmers are able to follow new ways – for example, like rainwater harvesting – so that production is increased,” he says. “They are able to build small irrigation canals, and selecting the right kind of seed helps them to produce a large crop.”

Thapa says she does not understand why the weather has changed so much in the past decade.

“If our farm yield was enough to feed the family, I would have never sent my loving husband for work abroad,” she says.

Ganesh Gurung and Gehendra Bahadur Gurung are not related.

GPJ translated this article from Nepali.