Nepal has always had too much rain or too little. But irregular monsoons and a worsening water shortage are emptying villages in the mountains of Nepal.
While scientists try to find proof that weather extremes in the Himalaya are a result of global climate change, here in Phulbari village 40km east of Kathmandu the real concern is that there are few men left to till the dry red soil.
“At least 10 families have left our village in the last few years and migrated to the cities because of the lack of water,” said Nanu Ghatane, who leads a women’s group here.
Even as farmers sell their land and move out to Kathmandu, people from the city have bought their homesteads as investment. The terraces lie dry and fallow amidst a stunning backdrop of snow mountains to the north.
Even among the families who have stayed, the menfolk have migrated to the Gulf or Malaysia in search of work. “Our men have left to earn 10,000 a month, toiling in the desert heat, while we need to hire people paying them 30,000 a month to work on our fields,” added Ghatane.
Laxman Prasad Adhikari, 48, has stayed despite the shortage of water and workers because he earns a decent income from selling milk and vegetables. And the reason he can do that is because he has water all year round from a rainwater harvesting system. He has also built a biogas plant to turn manure from his buffaloes into cooking gas.
“Many have left for Qatar and Malaysia but so far we are not doing badly with the farm and the livestock,” Adhikari said, “of course it would have been better if the government had helped us with irrigation and we could grow off-season vegetables.”
To be sure, droughts and water shortages are not new in the Himalaya. But farmers here who depend on rain-fed agriculture have had to walk further every day to fetch water. Only 15 of the 65 natural springs in the village still have water.
“Springs have been drying up one after another in the last few years. We don’t know if it’s because of the earthquake or changing climate,” said Ghatane, while waiting for a trickle to fill up her gagro. “It doesn’t rain as much as it used to. When it does, it is not on time or regular anymore.”
Here in Phulbari and surrounding villages of Kavre, women farmers do not allow a single drop of water go waste anymore. With help from ICIMOD’s Himalayan Climate Change and Adaptation Programme, they are collecting monsoon water, using wastewater to irrigate vegetable fields, and digging ponds to recharge ground water and revive springs.
After technicians identify a spring, women build a recharge basin up the hill to collect monsoon runoff and let it slowly seep into the soil. This prevents the spring from going dry, and water is collected in a tank that feeds a tap. Ghatane’s group has revived several springs that had recently gone dry.
The happiest farmers these days in Phulbari are the ones who have installed rainwater harvesting systems. Laxmi Parajuli’s 7,000 litre tank still has water she collected from her roof last monsoon.
“Even if the springs dry up, we still have enough rain for the kitchen and cattle,” said Parajuli. Many homesteads here now have plastic-lined ponds to store wastewater. Some families have even built 27,000 litre tanks to store rainwater from one monsoon to the next.
The only drawback is the cost, but when there is no alternative and when water becomes so precious for irrigation and drinking Phulbari farmers have found that necessity is the mother of invention.
Being self-sufficient in water has empowered women like Ghatane. She says: “There are few men here, so we women are responsible for taking most household decisions. It makes sense that we are the ones with these new ideas, and when a woman learns the whole family learns, too.”
In all his 70 years, Gyan Prasad Dhungana has never seen the weather being so unpredictable. Storms are more violent and frequent, and the rain erratic.
“We used to have showers every other day in May and June and there used to be gentle weeklong rain during the monsoon,” Dhungana recalled. “Nowadays the monsoon is often delayed and they say it is because of global warming.”
Bimala Bajgain, 35, who heads the Women Farmers’ Group here, says: “The monsoon does not follow timetable anymore, and the late rains mean paddy planting is delayed and there is lower yield.”
Decades of sprinkling chemical fertilisers and pesticides have also ruined the soil, reducing harvests, causing ecological harm and making farmers poorer. Now, villagers in Kavre have found that switching to organic vegetable farming can earn more money, help revive the soil, and adapt better to unpredictable weather.
Centre for Environment and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), which won this year’s the Adaptation at Scale award has been training farmers in Kavre in organic farming and water conservation so they can better adapt to water shortages.
One successful technique is drip irrigation to grow vegetables without wasting even a single drop of water. This protects the soil, boosts productivity, irrigates the fields with limited water supply and makes it much more cost-effective to farm.
“We collect rain water and water from the kitchen and washing in plastic ponds, and we don’t waste any water at all,” said 54-year old Nanimaya Dhungana, carrying a heavy load of fodder on her back.
Dhungana is also an avid advocate of jholmal, an organic fertiliser and bio-pesticide prepared by mixing locally available cattle urine, dung, farm waste and water.
Bimala Bajgain also uses jholmal, and said: “We had no idea about organic farming but since using jholmal two years ago, our harvests have increased. We save money because we don’t need to buy expensive pesticides and fertilisers anymore.”
Jholmal doesn’t lower the fertility of soil, protects plants from harmful pests and improves productivity. Farmers are also managing locally available compost by covering it up rather than drying out in the sun for maximum benefit. Introduction of methods like mulching and drought resistant seeds have also helped boost productivity of cash crops like cucumber, pumpkin and bitter gourd.
“We need to have a different mentality and patience, but we now know the importance of organic methods,” said Bajgain. “I now want to share our experience with neighbouring villages.”
Jholmal is a liquid fertiliser which works both as a biofertiliser and biopesticides and can easily be prepared at home using locally available materials like animal urine, cow dung, beneficial microbes, farmyard manure and plants. There are three different types of jholmal (1, 2, and 3) and the farmers in Kalchhi were taught to prepare the concoction by technical staff from CEAPRED.
In each 50 litre drum, Jholmal 1 is made by mixing 17 kg of well-decomposed cow dung or farmyard manure, 16 litres of cow/buffalo urine, 16 litres of water and 1 litre of beneficial microbes and left alone for 15 days. Jholmal 1 serves as a bio-fertiliser and should be poured directly on the soil at the bottom of the plants. The slurry constitutes of large amount of macronutrient necessary for plants.
It is a mixture of 24.5 litres of water, 24.5 litres of cow/buffalo urine and 1 litre of beneficial microbes. After 15 days, the solution works as a bio-pesticide and protects plants from pests and diseases of cereal and vegetables.
Locally available plants with bitter, sour, or pungent taste are mixed with 1 litre of beneficial microbes and then the drum is filled up with equal amounts of cow/buffalo urine and water. The third mixture also works as a bio-pesticide after 21-30 days and poses as insect repellent due to the plants used during preparation.
All pictures and videos by Kumar Acharya.
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Water brings life, Sahina Shrestha
Raindrops keep falling on our roofs, Ramyata Limbu
Every drop counts, Rubeena Mahato
No government, no irrigation, Sunir Pandey
Everything organic, Rubeena Mahato