Nepali farmers abandon rice as monsoon shifts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 19 Feb 2013 10:30 GMT
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A farmer talks about rainfall variability near her fields in Panityanki, a picturesque mountain village in Nepal's Kavrepalanchowk district, about 35 kilometers from Kathmandu. ALERTNET/Saleem Shaikh
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PANITYANKI, Nepal (AlertNet) – For most of his adult life, Bidur Basnet has planted paddy rice each monsoon season on his five hectares of mountain land. But in the last five years, as monsoon rains have grown increasingly unreliable, he has had to abandon the country’s staple crop.

Now he grows easier-to-water vegetables on half his land, leaving the other half fallow.

“How can we prepare our paddy fields when we do not know which month in any year the monsoon rains will drench our fields?” grumbles Basnet, 43, who gave up rice farming after seeing his harvests fall by a third. “Sometimes the monsoon rain is on time and sometimes it is delayed. Such unpredictability is really confounding for us.”

With rains that used to come in April now shifting as late as mid-June, vegetables, which can be watered by hand if needed or planted at the time rains finally fall, are now a better bet, he says.

“Growing cash crops like potato, garlic and onion that require much less water as compared to paddy and have ready buyers in the local market has been a source of secure, constant income for our household,” Bidur told AlertNet Climate.

Battered by growing rainfall variability and unpredictable weather, Nepal’s rice farmers are looking for alternatives, including new crops.

TURNING TO VEGETABLES

In mountainous Kavrepalanchowk district, about 35 kilometers from Kathmandu, vast tracts of former rice land have now been turned to small-scale vegetable farming.

Vegetables have always been grown in the area, but usually at the edge of rice and maize fields and for local consumption only. Now the rice fields have been turned to commercial vegetable farming.

“Growing rice has become a loss-making business” because of declining yields, worsening pest problems, scarce rain and rising temperatures, said Ganga Khattri, a 35-year-old rice-turned-vegetable farmer in Panityanki, a picturesque mountain town in Kavrepalanchowk district.

As a result, “I have switched over to vegetables, which can be grown year round and always have a cash value and demand,” she said.

For her and many other farmers in adjoining rain-fed villages, scarce and erratic rainfall has made it too risky to continue sowing rice. Since 2008, rice production in the region has fallen by about 85 percent, experts say.

Growing paddy rice requires a lot of water, all of it from the monsoon and other rainfall, over at least three months, farmers say. Vegetables, on the other hand, need half as much water and their shorter growing season can be shifted to match the arrival of the rains.

The timing of rice planting is also key. Transplanting of rice seedlings depends on the arrival of monsoon rains and the preparation of rice nurseries starts almost a month ahead of transplanting. If the monsoon is delayed, the waiting seedlings can be damaged, or they may not grow if the top soil is not submerged in water.

In Kavrepalanchowk district, 80 percent of the annual rain falls between June and September, so the monsoon rains are crucial.

Besides less rain falling, farmers said they had noticed the intensity of rainfall increasing but the overall number of rain days falling.

“Over the last seven to eight years, the rainfall pattern has completely changed,” Khattri said.

RAIN DAYS FALLING

Mohan Bahadur Chand, a glaciologist and rainfall variability scholar at Kathmandu University, said studies about monsoon patterns in Nepal have found that the number of rainy days in Nepal now is decreasing by one to three days a year.

Cash vegetable crops like potato, cauliflower, onion, okra, tomato and garlic are now being commonly grown in Kavrepalanchowk and adjoining districts, which once were popular for paddy rice, he said.

Bedi Mani Dahal, an environmental scientist at Kathmandu University, said there is a need to promote rainwater harvesting and water conservation practices to sustain rice production in the region. Water-saving paddy rice varieties also need to be introduced among farmers, Dahal suggested.    

Better information-sharing, adaptation and risk management programmes for farmers also could help farmers cope with shifting climate conditions, he said.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.