Soil in crisisBulldozers are flattening the hillocks around Changunarayan by moving huge amounts of soil.
The global soil conservation movement has once again centred our attention on the issue of soil degradation and reminded us that this precious natural resource is in crisis. Saving it from further degradation isn't merely about our survival, but the survival of future generations as well. Globally, it's said that our soils support 95 percent of all food production, and by 2060, our soils will be forced to provide as much food as we have consumed in the last 500 years, whereas, around half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Hence, the movement aims to encourage the formulation of policies to address the ongoing soil crisis, take actions to revitalise our ecology, and restore the organic content in cultivated soil.
Perhaps no one else has been able to summarise the value of soil as judiciously and succinctly as David Montgomery in his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He said soil is something "…we try to keep out of sight, out of mind, and outside. We spit on it, denigrate it, and kick it off of our shoes. But in the end, what’s more important? Everything comes from it, and everything returns to it. If that doesn’t earn dirt a little respect, consider how profoundly soil fertility and soil erosion shaped the course of history." The very first human civilisations were born of a prosperous marriage between abundant water and fertile soil, both of which are in crisis now.
Soil isn't just necessary to produce food; it's one of our most cost-effective reservoirs for sequestering carbon. It's the foundation for our biodiversity. It’s also a great filter making our groundwater safe from biological and other contaminators. When soil is lost or eroded, we lose not only food and levels of carbon sequestration and biodiversity, but our groundwater sources also begin to degrade. Once degraded, restoring groundwater quality is nearly impossible. Over the years, we’ve lost half of the basic building blocks that make soil productive.
Sadly, in Nepal, the soil crisis has never been as visible as the water crisis. In case of the latter, we see long queues at public taps, and experience dry taps at home, whereas a soil crisis is masked by the market, which simply imports food from other places and makes it readily available to us; therefore, we rarely, if ever, notice the reduction in domestic food production unless it's reported in the media and even then, the cause behind it—the deteriorating health of soil—isn't obvious. Our domestic production’s inability to meet our demands doesn't seem to bother anyone. Why do we have the lowest productivity in the region? The truth is we've left our soil’s health to the mercy of natural forces. We, particularly those of us not engaged in agriculture, are utterly divorced from the reality that ensures our food security. Thus, the degradation of our soil hasn't received as much attention as it deserves, and is unlikely to be the focus now.
After attending the first UN environment conference held in Stockholm in 1972, Erik Eckholm, a correspondent for The New York Times, wrote the book Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects in 1976 in which he explained the degradation of the global environment and specifically discussed deforestation in the Himalaya and the alarming rate of rampant soil erosion in the Nepal Himalaya calling it Nepal's "most precious export". Evidently, one hectare of land in Nepal loses an average of about 22 tonnes of soil in a year. In the upland farms, the figures are even higher.
This theory later became the foundation of our environment policy. Therefore, when it comes to the question of soil erosion, we're adamant that it's caused by deforestation and assume that restoring forests would fix the problem. Following the conference, the loss of soil from the hills and mountains, where almost 50 percent of the population lived then, became a serious concern for our government. In 1974, it established a dedicated department within the Ministry of Forests to curb soil erosion. Forty years later, the department was merged with the Department of Forest in 2017. The merger either signalled that erosion was no longer a priority or that it had been sufficiently curbed with increased forest cover (from less than 39 percent to over 44 percent).
Health of cultivated soil
However, the question now is the health of cultivated soil which has hardly been addressed by conservation works to the extent required. Degradation of the health of our cultivated soil is a grave problem. Several factors from over-harvesting of nutrients, the use of imbalanced chemical fertilisers, to the loss of organic matter along with rampant erosion have ruined soil health across the hills. Too much water in the monsoon and too little during winter months is another driver of deterioration of both the physical and biological health of soil, continuing to erode the very base of our food production. We must specifically aim to restore the organic content of cultivable soil, an issue close to the hearts of farmers.
It's said that 6 inches of soil is all that separates life from extinction. Yet, soil is one of the most neglected elements in our agriculture development programmes. The exodus of farmers from the hills and mountains in search of foreign employment, despite the looming threat of a pandemic, shows us exactly where we stand. Even today, state agriculture programmes don't address deteriorating soil health. Furthermore, the long-term development plans, such as the Agriculture Development Strategy built to address the issues within our stagnant agriculture, only touch upon the issue and adhere to increasing forest cover.
Nepal had gained some experience in maintaining soil health by promoting conservation farming. With the merger of the departments, the data accumulated, expertise gained, and the momentum built over the last 40 years were lost, leading to a vacuum in our approach to restoring soil across our farms in the hills. If we fail to value the progress made during the last four decades, and don't endeavour to understand how important these efforts were to support the custodians of our precious natural resource—soil—we'll continue to pay a heavy price indeed.
Unfortunately, even as I write this, bulldozers on the foothills of the Changunarayan area are busy flattening the hillocks for settlement by moving huge amounts of soil—poised for erosion during the coming monsoon. Where does one start to "save" soil?