Feeding the billionsGlobal food security can be ensured by sharing knowledge and experience among partners to promote irrigated agriculture
National and international participants representing various research and professional institutions are here in Kathmandu to take part in the Asian regional conference of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) organised by ICID Nepal-NENCID. An international and regional conference to facilitate knowledge exchange could lead to a number of tangible benefits. Since the time of ICID’s establishment in 1950 as an agency specialising in irrigation and drainage, it has been consistently striving to ensure global food security by sharing knowledge and experience among partners to promote irrigated agriculture. The ICID has envisioned a road map towards a water secure world that is free of poverty and hunger, which could also lead to the economic transformation of Nepal.
Agriculture provides employment to 63 percent of the population and constitutes 32 percent of the total GDP of the nation. Subsistence farming with lesser productivity and meagre farm labour wages has compelled a great number of Nepali youths to work in foreign lands as cheap labour, causing acute labour shortages in the agriculture sector. This scenario of farm labour out migration has not only resulted in a deficiency in agricultural production, even the hard earned currencies remitted by the Nepali youths has been utilised by the government in importing food grains from neighbouring countries.
The vicious circle of poverty—agriculture productivity decreasing due to youths migration and remittance spent in importing food grains—has resulted in a precarious economic state, especially considering that agriculture is said to be the engine of economic growth. The Agricultural Gross Domestic Product (AGDP)/ha and average annual growth of AGDP is only about $1800 and 3 percent respectively in the present scenario, which is extremely low even when compared with neighbouring countries with similar environments. Out of the 2.6 million hectares that are considered to be agricultural land in Nepal, 1.8 million hectares are provided with conventional surface and ground water irrigation services and assured round the year irrigation is available in only one third of the irrigated land.
When we look at the chronological development of irrigated agriculture in Nepal, apart from a few irrigation systems based on modern technology that were developed as parts of bigger projects covering a wide agricultural area, local food security has been assured by irrigated agriculture from the community managed irrigation networks that are sprawled all over the country. The farmer communities in the hills, mountains, valleys and plains have been organising their social efforts, skills and available natural resources to increase the agricultural productivity to ensure food security for the ever increasing population. Most of the farmer’s schemes are traditionally built by using local resources and indigenous skills. One can find long earthen canal tunnels that go through the mountains with water way crossings made out of carved tree trunks supported on rocks by the side of streams. Water rights for irrigation use in such systems have been established by making wooden grooves that are laid across the canals; these grooves allow water to flow into the fields of land holders. There is also gravity diversion of river water through dug-out canals that go all the way to the agricultural area.
These methods are Nepal’s heritage and serve as primitive but functional technology; they have an everlasting coherent social capital. The irrigation infrastructure is owned by the present generation and it was passed down to them by their forefathers, who created such methods when they did not possess any scientific knowledge or tools. There are many irrigation canals which are more than 300 years old, and there are canals which are even maintained and cleaned by thousands of farmers who gather together according to the calendar days set up by the mass farmers’ assemblies.
Water induced disasters triggered by climate change have posed a serious threat to irrigated agriculture. The adverse effects of climate change are even more pronounced in the marginalised farmers’ community. Long dry spells have caused a depletion of the mountain spring water sources, so irrigation canals run dry when farmers need water to irrigate planted crops. Intensified and localised rain for a short while causes land erosion and flash floods sweep the canal intake away, which effects the diversion of water. In particular, lengthy canal networks passing through multiple sub-watersheds that have diversified micro ecosystem variations seem to have suffered a lot due to the impact of climate changes. Many of the irrigation infrastructures that have been damaged in the last flood are yet to be repaired.
The ICID regional conference has been organised so a strong working link can be set up with the national committee, NENCID, here in Nepal. Other than providing an engineering perspective on irrigation and drainage, ICID also introduces new tools for sharing knowledge among its stakeholders in order to build capacity and increase agriculture productivity. It is the responsibility of the national committee here to extract experiences in policy formulation and expedite the transfer of developed technologies so they reach the farmer community. The vision set up by ICID to eradicate hunger with the use of fresh water can be met partly by our mission of irrigated agriculture development. We have to take the present status of agricultural development into consideration while determining a specific strategy of intervention. Prioritising community managed irrigated agriculture may be enough to fulfil the local demand for food, but we may have to focus on large scale irrigation projects with government investment for commercial agriculture. At a quick glance, three national pride irrigation projects, the Sikta, Ranijamara Kulariya and Veri Babai diversion multipurpose projects in the western part of Nepal are ideal for commercial agriculture. The project area may be declared as a special agro-economic zone to run agro based industries. For this, rampant urbanisation in the fertile agriculture land needs to be restrained. The things envisioned in the three daylong conference can be realised if ICID comes on board and joins us in our march towards the Green revolution.
Adhikary is Former Director General of the Department of Irrigation and Former President of ICID/NENCID