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Energy scarcity, and not delayed monsoon, is to blame for late paddy transplantation in Nepal

13 Jul

This year, monsoon has played truant. According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, rainfall deficit in the western and far western region of Nepal for the month of June is around 50%, while the Indian Meteorological Department estimates rainfall deficit in India at ­­­43%. Scientists reckon that El Nino effect is to blame. El Nino is the weather phenomena caused by the warming of the sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean. It occurs irregularly every two to seven years and is associated with weaker monsoon. 2002 and 2009 were El Nino years during which monsoon rainfall was below normal, causing drought and decline in crop production in many parts of South Asia. South Asia Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF), which prepares monsoon outlook for South Asia every year, indicated that this year monsoon is likely to be below normal.

Poor monsoon is terrible news for our region’s agriculture given the limited irrigation facilities and heavy reliance on rain-fed farming. The slow pace of paddy transplantation in Nepal is making headlines, while the price rise and hoarding is making news in India. If monsoon rains do not catch up soon, it will have serious implications on food security, food prices and overall economic growth in the region. There is not much we could have done about the delayed monsoon, but were there ways in which its negative impact on agriculture could have been reduced?

Farmers need energy and irrigation infrastructure to grow food for the country

Yes, negative impacts on agriculture could have been partly averted by concerted investments in irrigation and energy infrastructure, both in the hills and in the Terai. By irrigation, we do not necessarily mean large scale surface irrigation costing millions of dollars, but even small scale irrigation using groundwater could have worked miracles at this time. Indeed there are roughly 120,000 farmer-owned shallow tubewells dotting the Terai and farmers use them for life saving irrigation and for growing high-value crops like vegetables. But they all run on diesel and given the high cost of diesel, it does not make a lot of economic sense for farmers to transplant paddy using diesel pumps. Instead, farmers choose to wait for the arrival of monsoon and by doing so, risk severe reduction in yields. Delayed transplantation affects not only paddy production, but also impacts the rest of the cropping cycle. What is happening right now in Nepal is starkly reminiscent of what happened in Bihar during the 2009 drought. Bihar, like much of Nepal, has poor irrigation infrastructure. It had a deficit rainfall of 40% that year and the area sown with paddy plummeted by 50%, leading to severe loss in farmers’ income. However, in Punjab, with similar rainfall deficit, there was hardly any decline in cropped area simply because farmers had access to irrigation – both through canals and electricity operated groundwater pumps.

In places like the Terai, where groundwater is available in plenty and at very shallow depths, it is indeed distressing to see fields left fallow due to late arrival of monsoon, or for that matter, fields left fallow during the summer season, when a second or a third crop could have been easily grown. Similar is the case in the mid hills, where perennial rivers flow at valley bottoms, but water cannot be lifted from the rivers to irrigate fields on hill slopes.

Energy scarcity and not water scarcity is the real issue

The Terai and the mid hills do not really face a physical scarcity of water per se, even when monsoons fail once in a while, like it may this year. Water is available, either a few feet below the ground in abundantly recharged aquifers, or flowing through the river valleys. Yet, farmers cannot use this plentiful water because they lack access to affordable and reliable sources of energy to lift that water. While the impact of power shortage on urban residents and industries is much discussed, farmers’ plight due to energy scarcity rarely makes headlines.

Just imagine for a moment that most of those 120,000 or so shallow tubewells in the Terai were connected to the electricity grid or solar panels and were getting reliable electricity supply for at least six hours a day. Or that there were several hundreds of small electricity or solar powered lift irrigation systems in the mid hills of Nepal. Then, would farmers still postpone paddy transplantation owing to the delay in monsoon? They most likely would not, because electricity is far more affordable than diesel and the cost of keeping land fallow are much higher.

This very important link between water, energy and agriculture is not well understood. True, the electricity being generated now is not enough for the population in general, not just farmers, but rarely is agricultural electricity deemed important enough to make it to policy documents and future electricity demand forecasts. This needs to change immediately if we want our farmers to cope with the vagaries of monsoon.

Give solar pumps a chance

Nepal is now making its long-term hydropower plans. This is the right time to think about other renewable sources of energy that can be developed and deployed quickly for the benefit of farmers. One such option is solar powered pumps. In the past decade, costs of solar panels have come down sharply, and it is now possible to install 1 HP solar pumps for a little over Rs. 200,000 and no further recurring costs. Higher capacity pumps are also available in the market, albeit at higher prices. These pumps are suitable for one-acre farms and for providing irrigation during the most critical period in paddy transplantation.

Thus, while worrying about the late arrival of monsoon is completely justified, let us not forget that most of the negative consequences of such delay could have been largely avoided if farmers had access to energy.