(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

“Dismal” irrigation system worsens crop shortages

Access to clean water remains a challenge in Nepal's Terai region along the border with India. More than 30,000 people are exposed to arsenic
Suman K. Shakya/ENPHO

The government of Nepal needs to improve irrigation management to achieve higher agricultural productivity and overcome “dismal” water and crop shortages, experts say.

Most of the country’s 1.2 million hectares (ha) of irrigated land is in the fertile Terai (southern Nepal) or other easily accessible areas, but very little in the hill regions of the food-insecure far and mid-west.

According to UN World Food Programme (WFP), the 600,000 people living in the far and mid-west regions at the base of the Himalayan mountains - also referred to as the hills - have the most problems growing and accessing enough food to survive.

Food security is increasingly problematic even in the fertile irrigated districts of the Terai, including Saptari and Siraha, where paddy production was reduced by half due to late rains in 2010, according to a yet-to-be-published report by WFP.

Just because there is irrigation does not mean it works, according to FMIS-Promotion Trust, a local NGO that works with centuries-old farmer-managed irrigation systems (FMIS).

Farmer managed irrigation

FMIS mostly uses traditional canals made of wood, boulders, shrubs and logs, whereas government constructed systems are concrete, and include tube wells, shallow wells and groundwater.

Because of neglect and lack of maintenance, only two-thirds of the nation’s entire irrigation network works during the monsoon season and only one third of the land is irrigated year-round.

To adapt to changing rain patterns and longstanding food problems in remote mountainous areas, the government needs to give more support to FMIS, said Pradhan.

“There is clear evidence that there has been higher agricultural productivity through FMIS than the irrigation system managed by the government,” she said.

She explained how, in FMIS, farmers take responsibility for water acquisition, allocation, distribution and overall management on a continuous basis - but lack critical government financial backing, especially to operate in difficult terrain.

So far, 1.2 million ha of the country’s irrigable land has watering systems, out of which FMIS covers 70 percent, with the rest government-managed, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.

Until the 1970s, Nepal was as a food exporting nation, but in the past decade it has become a net food importing country, producing less than 2.5 tons of grain per hectare annually, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

But the country could boost cereal production six-fold with better irrigation systems, said Pradhan.

Rapid population growth and migration put a squeeze on the region’s food supply. Until the 1970s, two-thirds of the population lived in the hills and one-third in the Terai, but low agricultural productivity in the hill regions encouraged more people to move to the Terai.


Since almost all of the country’s arable land is under cultivation and there have been few technological improvements for Nepal’s rain-fed crops, the best solution is irrigated agriculture, according to the government’s Irrigation Management Division (IRM).

“We cannot say that the poor irrigation system alone is to be blamed for food insecurity but it does play a major role,” Uttam Raj Timilsina, IRM’s deputy director general, told IRIN.

The government is conducting surveys to start inter-basin river projects to boost irrigation management, said Timilsina.

The hope is these projects can transfer water from big rivers (Bheri, Kali, Trishuli, Koshi) to tributaries in the country’s interior to ensure year-round irrigation, working towards a 10-year government strategy of revamping irrigation.


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