By Shahani Singh in Nepal
Bimala Bajagain, a farmer and mother of three, wears a fading red kurta and appears older than her age at 35. She offers us plates of salted guavas at the porch of her quake-damaged house.
By midday, October’s warm sun boils over Kalchebesi village of Kavrepalanchok district. Bajagain insists we also savour a plate of cucumbers.
“We managed to build our temporary shelter from initial government funds and assistance from an INGO,” Bajagain shares, nodding toward a small hovel constructed of corrugated steel, right beside her cow shed.
“But this structure will have to be rebuilt for winter – the steel heated up unbearably in the summer and now it will turn very cold.”
Bajagain plans to reinforce her shelter with plywood for insulation, which she will fund with a loan from a local cooperative, and eventually pay with income from selling her vegetables, if the water holds out.
“We have scarcity of water during the summer due to erratic rainfall. This year, it poured torrentially for a day but halted for the rest of the season.”
“It involves nothing more than digging a hole for placing organic manure, sowing the seed and covering it with hay as a protective layer,” she says.
The results are obvious: “I had sown my bitter gourd seeds in February this year – six months on, I am still harvesting, whereas last year, the manure dried quickly and the harvest lasted only four months.”
Bajagain says her income has nearly doubled compared to the year before, thanks to the extra water. Donor funds for reconstruction still haven’t been distributed by the government, even eight months since the quake.
The extra money from her increased harvest of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber and bitter gourd will be all she has to fund both the better winter shelter and support her children’s education.
Bajagain may have high hopes, but she has good reason to remain concerned.
“The total annual rainfall in Kavrepalanchok is not changing, and it is not projected to change,” says Laxmi Dutta Bhatta, ecosystem management specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu.
“It is the pattern of rainfall that is changing – there are heavier, more intense downpours which lead to flooding. What we need is sustainable rainfall that the soil can absorb and which re-charges the ground water.”
Farmers in the neighbouring village of Patlekhet have also found climate-smart ways to adapt.
“Plastic ponds have greatly assisted the irrigation needs of my home garden,” says Saraswati Dhital, a farmer who was helped by a climate-smart project run by the Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a local NGO.
Dhital’s pond is lined with plastic sheeting. Waste-water from wash basins and excess water from torrential downpours are channelled into a small plastic-lined pond that irrigate Dhital’s turnips, cardamom, lemon and coriander. Saplings are already starting to sprout.
Each household in Patlekhet village has its own plastic-lined collection pond, while a bigger community pond sits higher up the hill. Having a local irrigation source means Saraswati no longer has to hike to the next hill for potable water; it’s a big time-saver.
“Our main intervention is for waste-water management,” says Keshav Dutta Joshi, programme director, CEAPRED. “According to our research, a typical family that grows vegetables using waste-water irrigation and keeps cattle can earn more than a migrant labourer working in the Gulf.”
CEAPRED aims to have a scientific basis to design and apply a well-packaged programme for the entire mid-hill agro-ecological region of Nepal that will tell farmers how much water can be harvested.
It will even work out the amount of investment required, the crops that can be grown and the amount of income that can be earned. “But, we will need data from at least three consecutive years of action research for this.” Joshi says
Japan’s Kochi Technology University (KTU) surveyed over a 1000 farmers in Nepal’s western mid-hill agro-ecological zone. They found that vegetable production and income could increase more than 30 per cent by simply deploying water-conservation techniques like lining ponds with plastic.
It seems mulching and water harvesting by using plastic ponds have a good basis for scientific validity as adaptive practices against extreme weather. This will also help alleviate poverty in the mid-hills region in Nepal.
Bajagain is acutely aware that climate change and Nepal’s recent devastating earthquakes means age-old farming methods are going to have to adapt to a new reality. “We need self-sufficient practices to help ourselves. Mulching and plastic ponds have certainly helped us abate losses in the face of unexpected weather and climate change.”
“My crops would dry up and wilt in previous years,” she tells me calmly. “Thankfully, such is not the case this year, given our financial struggles after the quake.”