Climate change threatens Nepali farmers' livelihood and nation's food security

MADAN POKHARA, Nepal -- Churamani Neupane thought he was going through a normal monsoon when heavy rain arrived in June. But three days later, he found "normal" no longer applied.

"My rice paddies had never been flooded before, but this time, they submerged into 2-meter-deep water," the 34-year-old farmer recalled of his first visit after the rain. "I was so stressed when I saw it, because much of my family's income relies on the rice sales."

The flood finally faded away one week later, but the problem it caused didn't. What used to be Neupane's rice paddies is now a mix of rocks, streams and muddy dirt, making it impossible for the rice grower to cultivate this year.

Such stories have become much more common in Nepali villages in recent years, as erratic climate patterns and natural disasters likely linked to global warming increasingly take a toll on farmers' livelihoods and the country's food security.

Nepal, responsible for just 0.025 percent of global greenhouse emissions, is one of the lowest emitters in the world. Yet it ranks in the top 20 among 197 countries in British risk advisory firm Maplecroft's latest climate change vulnerability index.

Atmospheric temperature here is rising at a rate higher than the global average, with an increase of 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1975 and 2006. The warmer weather allows crops to grow in areas that were previously too cold and lengthens the growing season for some crops.

However, it also has caused higher evaporation and a bigger need for irrigation. At the same time, rainfall patterns have become unpredictable, while more extensive insect attacks and increased frequency of extreme weather events have all hurt Nepal's agricultural production.

There have been few epidemiological studies to analyze how bad this impact may be, but a growing list of food loss reports could give a clue. Last year, a large-scale insect attack outbreak hit Dubiya village in central Nepal, and at least 40 percent of rice growers' hard work ended up feeding pests.


This summer, monsoon rain arrived in western Nepal's Deukhuri valley several months earlier than it used to, leaving unprepared farmers with nothing to do but watch their farmland go underwater.

As the majority of Nepali citizens engage in smallholder farming, a sector that is particularly susceptible to weather volatility, a great portion of the population will find itself affected by climate change.

When rainfall goes off the charts

Deep in the lush, green valleys of southern Nepal, the residents of Madan Pokhara have already felt the pinch of the changing weather. Gita Bashyal, for one, witnessed her farmlands being threatened by more floods in recent years. Meanwhile, her rice, tomatoes and other plants fruited less, falling victim to a blooming season in which heavy rains washed down flowers.

There were also days when no rain came at all. To cope with increasing droughts, Bashyal dug a 75-foot well for her rice paddies, which were traditionally fed by rainwater. But the warmer weather dried up the soil more quickly, and the lack of rain reduced the groundwater. The result: More than 20 percent of her anticipated production was lost in 2010, despite hours of pumping water every day.

"Climate change has made my life harder," Bashyal said. "I'm now earning less than what I earned 15 years ago."

As making a living from farmlands became more difficult, Bashyal's husband turned his back on farming. Instead, he now works in a construction company.

Bashyal's family is hardly alone. Everyone ClimateWire spoke to at the village knew of people who had abandoned their farmland and migrated to cities, sometimes to foreign countries, to seek a higher-paying job.

Such migration has a long history in rural Nepal, but slumping agricultural output has helped speed up the trend. As men departed, the work of growing crops, feeding livestock and taking care of the family has all shifted to women.

Nepal was once a net food exporter to India and Bangladesh. Now it's struggling to feed its own people, importing 316,000 tons of food in 2010 alone. This figure is expected to continue growing.

Hans Woldring, an agriculture specialist at the Asian Development Bank, said Nepali farmers may not have to leave their homes in order to make a living.

"The yield gap between Nepal's current output and good practice is very wide," Woldring said. "So for most Nepali farmers, they could improve the productivity by changing the way of managing their crops and farmland, and the benefit of that will be considerably bigger than the impact of climate change which decreases the yield."

Expecting the unexpected

It's a tall order for a poor country. Years of civil wars here not only killed tens of thousands but also created a vacuum of supportive policies, financial assistance and reliable technologies -- all of which are key for increasing Nepal's food productivity.

Beyond that, little is known about how Nepali farmland has been changed so far, let alone what it will be in the future.

International and local organizations have tried to help. For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature seeded "climate smart" village programs in several Nepali communities, with the hope of replicating learned lessons elsewhere.

Since 2010, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal has been collecting data from six Nepali villages in different climate zones. The data could help communities develop their own adaptation plans while increasing global knowledge of climate change.

Meanwhile, farmers are preparing for more uncertainty. At Madan Pokhara, for example, many have shifted to organic farming because they recognize that commercial pesticides can't protect their crops from future insect attacks, but more balanced ecosystems can.

The villagers pay more attention to protecting the surrounding forests because they can reduce dry spells by storing more rainwater and limit flooding from heavy rains.

Neupane, the rice grower who experienced this year's unexpected flood as the greatest loss in his life, will have difficulty resuming farming because a nearby river changed course to run across his rice paddies. Then there is his mother, who lost her husband years ago and totally depends on Neupane's income.

"I'm expecting more unexpected floods to come in the future," the rice grower said. "I will do whatever I can to adapt to the change and support my family."

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