(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Agricultural reform “would boost food security"

Farmers in remote villages lack access to modern farming technologies, a fact which impedes agricultural output.
Naresh Newar/IRIN

Nepal could significantly reduce its food insecurity over the next decade if it revamped its agricultural sector and invested more in irrigation, according to specialists.

Approximately 45 of the country’s 75 districts - the vast majority in the mountainous areas of the northwest - fail to produce enough food to meet the population’s basic needs, according to Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Agriculturalists worry that productivity is dropping while the population – approximately 28 million – is rising.

Moreover, cropland holdings are diminishing in a country where nearly 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood.

According to recent statistics, fewer than 100,000 farmers own more than three hectares of croplands to farm, with the vast majority of farmers farming on less than 0.5 hectares.

Out of 14.7 million hectares, Nepal has nearly 2.3 million hectares of arable land, according to government estimates. However, less than 40 percent of its croplands is irrigated.

”Our low agricultural production and poor state of agriculture is mainly due to poor irrigation systems, lack of modern farm technologies in rural areas, as well as decades of political neglect,” said agriculture expert Pitamber Acharya, director of the Development Project Service Centre (DEPROSC) Nepal, a local NGO working in food-deficit districts of the northwest.

But agriculturists believe if farmers in remote areas had access to more modern farming practices – particularly irrigation facilities - that could change.

Access problems

Self-sufficient in food-grains until the 1980s, Nepal now has to import food. Average rice, wheat and maize yields are comparatively lower than for most of its South Asian neighbours.

''Our low agricultural production and poor state of agriculture is mainly due to poor irrigation systems, lack of modern farm technologies in rural areas, as well as decades of political neglect.''

The Himalayan nation spends nearly US$30.7 million to import rice and another $769,000 for wheat from India and Bangladesh to feed its population.

“Failure to disseminate the knowledge about better farming technologies to the farmer has been a major setback for our agricultural system,” said Acharya.

New technologies are simple, affordable and easy for farmers to use in remote areas, provided the government helps to bring this technology to them, he said.

But that is just part of the challenge.

Despite efforts by NGOs to improve the agricultural sector, difficult terrain and poor roads make access to the area a major challenge.

“To augment food production, there should be a new food policy and more investment for both the short and longer terms,” said Narendra Khadga Chettri, director of Support Activities for Poor Producers of Nepal (SAPPROS). He added that government should prioritise investment in road-building to help expand market access. SAPPROS is helping rural farmers with new agricultural technologies and irrigation projects.

Chettri added that bringing irrigation and water harvesting facilities to remote areas had mitigated food insecurity during drought, landslides and floods.

Since SAPPROS invested in an irrigation and water harvesting system in Mugu, one of Nepal’s worst food-deficit districts 800km northwest of the capital, more than 2,000 families have benefited.

Government response

“We are aiming to renew policies that could help in commercialising the agricultural sector because it is still at subsistence level,” said senior government official Hari Dahal from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. He added that the government would begin implementing the existing policies and put agriculture top of the development agenda this year.

Yet NGOs remain sceptical about the government’s commitment to delivering such systems.

“The government should be providing support more towards strengthening the community organisations which are actively working in improving food security,” said Chettri.

Despite government’s investment of $25 million in the agricultural sector, most of the funds are spent on administration expenses and staff salaries, claim NGOs.

Short-term solution

Given the state of agriculture in the country, coupled with rising food prices, Nepal is forced to rely on short-term aid at a time when the Nepalese are returning to peace after a decade-long armed conflict, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

The UN food agency has been focusing on trying to help rural communities by providing medium-sized employment schemes for road construction and rebuilding destroyed bridges and buildings. Villagers get food instead of cash for their labour.

“The food crisis in the short term has to be approached with high-impact immediate activities, as you can’t look at revamping the agricultural system in the country because that is going to take between five and 20 years,” Richard Ragan, WFP’s country representative in Nepal, told IRIN.

Nepal has a long history of rural extension agricultural services basically ceasing to exist given the country’s fragile security situation, he explained.

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