For want of waterThe disaster could be an opportunity to pilot earthquake-resilient small-scale irrigation scheme designs in the hills and plains
Come July, farmers in Nepal look forward to the start of the rice-growing season. This year, in the aftermath of the April earthquake, they will do so with perhaps a little more concern. The disaster caused significant damage to basic infrastructure, including the irrigation structures which are the lifeblood of monsoon paddy cultivation.
While the government and aid agencies chart long-term strategies for the country’s recovery, farmers are scrambling to repair damaged irrigation ditches and channels, essential for a healthy crop. If they miss this season, they will not have enough food to survive and will be dependent on handouts and odd jobs.
Resilience—the ability to withstand shocks—has become a common buzzword in post-earthquake Nepal. Rural Nepalis have always been resilient. The farmer-managed irrigation systems of the middle hills of the country are perhaps the best example of this. Here, for generations, communities have been managing their own water resources, by operating and maintaining canal irrigation systems using local knowledge, technology and resources. In Sindhupalchok district of central Nepal, one of the areas most affected by the earthquake, locally organised Water Users’ Associations (WUAs) are trying to restore these irrigation systems for the forthcoming season of paddy cultivation. One user association in Kalleritar of Dhading has acted fast. Focusing on quick and temporary rehabilitation of an irrigation system with a command area of over 100 hectares (ha), they are using local labour and prefabricated materials, such as polythene pipes, polythene sheets and gabion wire, to restore damaged canals.
During the earthquake, over 1,800 small- and medium-scale irrigation schemes that served an area of 123,500 ha of irrigated land in 31 earthquake-affected districts were damaged. It may take up to two years for some systems to be repaired. In most cases, the lack of irrigation water for even a year means significant agricultural losses in the production of staple crops, such as rice and wheat, as well as cash crops or vegetables.
Building better structures
Preliminary assessments have highlighted that the damage caused to irrigation infrastructure has been aggravated by faulty construction. So, this could be an opportunity to pilot earthquake-resilient small-scale irrigation scheme designs in the hills and plains of Nepal. Past attempts to rehabilitate irrigation systems in Nepal are now recognised as putting too much emphasis on the concrete lining of channels. This can make it difficult for farmers to make repairs, due to them only having access to local resources. However, there are new options that could be explored for canal reconstruction, including the use of durable prefabricated building materials which can be procured locally and utilised for quick repairs.
We also need to invest in more research. We need to dig deeper into identifying why some water users’ associations are more successful than others and how they can prepare for future disasters. This information could be incorporated into updated irrigation guidelines that are also sensitive to seismicity and other vulnerabilities.
‘Never waste a crisis’ goes the old saying. By responding now with innovation and energy to the urgent need for the repair of irrigation systems, let us hope that when farmers and irrigation technicians welcome the cultivation season next year, they do so with confidence and hope for a more resilient future.
Sugden is a researcher with the International Water Management Institute and Pradhan is Patron of Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems Promotion Trust (F.Sugden@cgiar.org, firstname.lastname@example.org)