One of the paradoxes of Nepal is that the country is one of the world’s most endowed with fresh water, and yet families sometimes starve at certain times of the year because they don’t have enough water to maintain their crops. Development can be weird like that right?
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Nepalese economy, but malnutrition is among the highest in the world partly because families can’t maintain enough variety and consistency of food supply from their farm yield. The problem is not lack of water but lack of irrigation.
In the hills and mountains, families live in small communities spread across sparsely populated slopes. To feed the villages, almost every inch of the hills are terraced to grow crops. To maintain enough year round nutritious food supply for everyone, irrigated water would have to be pumped from the valley rivers up hundreds of meters vertically to reach the tops of the hills and all of the terraces.
It’s too expensive for families themselves to invest in the development of irrigation for their farms and the government certainly hasn’t done it for them. The consequence of the government’s lack of investment is an old-fashioned farming system that relies on back-breaking labour (often carried out by women) and produces extremely low yields. At this current rate, the agriculture industry will not bring about the sustainable economic growth and development that Nepal so desperately needs, anytime soon.
But there are possible solutions. Development actors like INGOs can be the catalyst working with government to help communities invest in some simple irrigation systems that will supply the whole community. This, coupled with training for famers on more effective farming methods, and training with mothers on how to maximise the nutritional variety of their meals, has proven to generate remarkable change towards improved food security and reduced malnutrition.
Right now we have two potential grant opportunities from the New Zealand and Australian governments and I’m working on a two major project designs that would do exactly this.
For many decades New Zealand has had a booming agricultural economy despite some difficult geographies that are equally challenging to irrigate. We’re exploring whether some NZ irrigation technologies, which have proven to work in countries like Vanuatu in the Pacific, might be applied to the hills of Nepal.
The technology is simple as it uses gravity fall to pump water up remarkable heights. The best part is that it doesn’t require power and it is durable and low maintenance – exactly what remote communities of Nepal need. The reason that families haven’t done this themselves is that 1) they don’t have access to the technology, 2) they aren’t fully aware of the science of irrigation and crop yields, and most importantly 3) because they lack the initial capital to make the outset investment. This is where development actors like NGOs can be a catalyst for change.
Let me first say that it’s important to avoid hand-out development, where INGOs simply give products and resources frequently to communities for free. The reason is that research shows over time it creates dependence, disempowers communities and results in wastage. However, there are ways to help communities invest in important community assets, like infrastructure, without disempowering them.
One way is to help communities establish savings systems so that in the future they can continue to invest in their farming capital. Another is to help communities establish governance systems to collectively maintain the infrastructure over time. Communities and local government can also make joint investments into community assets together with NGOs, offering for example free labour or materials. This builds their sense of ownership over the resources. In some cases, communities have even been able to pay off the costs of the asset over time with their profits from the increase in farming yields.
The NGO then uses those funds to invest in another community and so the cycle continues. In this way, we can help communities get over the first hurdle to modernising their farming methods and help be a catalyst for growth in income, empowering them for the future.