Irrigation is the mainstay of agriculture. Availability of irrigation facilities increases crop yields, contributes to food security and helps increase exports of agricultural products, thus resulting in a favourable trade balance. Development of agriculture contributes to the industrial sector because agriculture provides raw materials for the industry. In Nepal, agriculture contributes around one-third to the gross domestic product. It employs over 70 per cent of the total labour force. When it comes to the rural labour force, the percentage is around 80 per cent.
In Nepal, the development of irrigation took off with the construction of the Chandra Nahar (Canal) in 1979 BS. Water distribution started from the Chandra Nahar in 1985 BS. Likewise, the Judha Canal (Sarlahi), the Jagdishpur Dam (Kapilvastu) and the Pardi Dam (Pokhara) came into operation in 2000 BS. Before 2007 BS, the government’s involvement in the development of irrigation was limited. The pace of development slightly picked up momentum after the introduction of democracy in 2007 BS. Meanwhile, the Department of Canals was established in 2009 BS. However, the development of irrigation took a new turn after the introduction of the first five-year plan in 2013 BS with Nepali technicians working in the irrigation sector.
Despite efforts on the part of the government, the development of irrigation has been progressing sluggishly. The main factors behind the slow progress are, inter alia, underfunding, lack of skilled manpower and poor coordination between the government entities concerned. As per the 2019 Irrigation System Inventory of the Department of Water Resources and Irrigation (DWRI), around 2,254 surface water irrigation systems are in operation, covering around 728,450 hectares of agricultural land. Overall, 40 per cent of cultivated land is covered by irrigation facilities.
Nepal is an agrarian country. The climate of the country is favourable for agricultural development. The land is fertile and there is abundant rainfall and the agro-climatic conditions are favourable for growing a variety of crops. There is great potential for developing irrigation facilities. Despite such favourable conditions, the country is yet to develop agriculture to the desired extent. As a result, the country is compelled to import agricultural products. Food exports rose by 60 per cent between 2015 AD and 2020 AD as per the Foreign Trade Statistics. The country was classified as a country with a moderate level of hunger in the 2022 Global Hunger Index. This points to looming food insecurity in the country.
Many people are still engaged in agriculture and allied activities although the numbers are dwindling year after year. The environment for engaging in agriculture is lacking. So many people are abandoning their land and migrating to urban areas and abroad for their livelihoods. This is a blow to the agricultural sector. There are various factors responsible for the underdevelopment of the agriculture sector. Shortages of water leading to dry land, unplanned urbanisation, practices of fragmenting land, a short supply of fertilisers and seeds, lack of the skilled workforce and lack of irrigation facilities are the main factors.
Besides, having access to agro-mechanisation, modern agricultural tools, technical support and modern technology is also a challenge for farmers. As irrigation facilities are not available in all parts of the country, most farmers have to depend on rainfall for agricultural activities. The existing irrigation facilities are old, inefficient and poorly maintained. Such irrigation results in low productivity and high water losses. Depending on rainfall for agricultural activities makes the farmers prone to climate change and other weather-related vulnerabilities.
It is not that the government has not paid attention to irrigation development. In fact, it has recognised the importance of irrigation for agricultural development. It has embarked upon several plans and projects aimed at improving irrigation. One such plan is the National Irrigation Plan. The plan was launched in 2016 AD. Its aim is to expand irrigated land to 50 per cent by 2030 AD. It aims at developing large- and small-scale irrigation facilities, including gravity-fed systems, small-scale irrigation schemes and groundwater irrigation. The government has encouraged public-private partnerships in the development and management of irrigation infrastructure.
Rain-fed agricultural practices are not viable. They are vulnerable to droughts and other weather-related hazards. Although providing year-long irrigation facilities is a hard nut to crack, the government can gradually expand irrigation facilities throughout the country. For this, the government could use surface water and groundwater for existing and new lands. The government should focus on constructing irrigation projects, where needed. Contractors should be selected on the basis of their qualifications and track records. Such projects should be monitored from time to time. What is more, there should be sound coordination between the government entities concerned.
Rural farmers are mostly smallholder farmers. Their income is low from agricultural production. Owing to climate change and other factors, the monsoon rains have become erratic. That is why they have to face droughts time and again. This has led to lower crop yields. On the one hand, demand for food is growing day by day, while on the other it leaves much to be desired when it comes to agricultural production. So it is high time the government took concrete measures to boost irrigation development. It should also pay heed to the timely supply of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and seeds. At the same time, it should take the initiative in bringing in new technology and technical support, and introduce agro-mechanisation extensively. Resorting to atavistic methods of agriculture will not boost agricultural production and productivity.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)