Tapping waterFor a country dependent on agriculture, a reactive irrigation policy is dangerous
The Sunsari-Morang Irrigation Project, one of the largest irrigation projects of the country that targets to cover 68,000 hectares of land, has been releasing water for hardly three months in a year. The government has been spending Rs450 million every year on the project, which has already admitted that it cannot supply water even for wheat and rice production as the water level in the Koshi river has dropped below the project’s intake.
This case is emblematic of the government’s indifference to the agriculture sector. Once a net exporter, Nepal now imports farm products worth billions every year, while its own production has been declining year after year. The dire state of the country’s agricultural sector can mostly be attributed to the lack of irrigation facilities. The farm sector of the country, which accounts for around 33 percent of the economy, has long been at the mercy of rainwater as half of the croplands lack irrigation facilities. Round-the-year irrigation covers only 18 percent of the total farmland.
The failure of the few irrigation projects has led to a spike in demand for shallow tube wells in the country. The government has installed 500 of those in Morang and Sunsari districts and 300 in Jhapa district this fiscal year, according to the Groundwater Irrigation Development Division, Sunsari. Last year, 885 tube wells had been installed in the districts. The Ministry of Irrigation has also recently tabled a scheme entitled ‘Prosperous Tarai-Madhes Irrigation Special Programme’ to provide water to parched farmlands in the region through solar-powered shallow tube wells until larger irrigation projects are developed.
While the government’s move to encourage groundwater extraction to boost farm production is welcome, the focus should be on getting right the larger agricultural strategy on irrigating all farmlands.
Over extracting groundwater comes with its own attendant problems. It may help boost production in the short run, but a depleting water table does more harm than good in the long run. Therefore, a larger irrigation policy needs to take into account future needs and sustainability of water sources for irrigation. Adopting a policy based on years-old understandings can be problematic as they do not factor in emerging challenges of climate change. Several studies have pointed out that the impact of changing weather patters on agriculture has generally been negative. Farmers have also reported a drying of traditionally available water sources.
Hence, any use of groundwater should be complemented by an identification of the groundwater recharge zones, with efforts to recharge the water level so as to get water all year around. Failure to do so will only result in a depletion of groundwater as evident from many cases in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, among others.
The government also needs to focus on developing new river-fed irrigation facilities, while conducting regular maintenance on the existing ones. But all these measures need to be informed by an irrigation policy that is evidence-based, coordinated and sustainable.