The Nepalese government is planning to pilot the country’s first weather warnings for farmers, something it is hoped will stem agricultural losses during the June-August monsoon.
Thousands of hectares of arable land are damaged during this period; in 2013 alone an estimated 10,000 hectares were lost to land erosion, floods and water-logging, according to the Ministry of Agricultural Development (MOAD).
“We lost everything this year and we didn’t have time to harvest our crops,” a farmer, Manju Biswakarma, told IRIN in the remote Teperai village of Banke District’s Holiya Village Development Committee (the most local unit of government), nearly 650km southwest of Kathmandu.
The 35-year-old mother of four lost her entire hectare of farmland , which typically produced nearly 1,900kg of rice annually. Instead, her farm is now covered in white silt from the nearby River Rapti, which overflowed its banks during flooding in July. Another 100 farming families lost on average .15 hectares each.
“If the farmers had received information on time, they could have saved their crops and harvested beforehand,” said Dev Datta Bhatta, a programme officer with international NGO Practical Action which specializes in providing community-based early warnings for natural disasters.
Nationwide, agriculture is a major source of income and livelihood for over 66 percent of the country’s 27.4 million people, including almost all families in Teperai village.
Preparing for disaster
“We cannot avert natural disasters but we can make the farmers better prepared with the help of timely information through an efficient communication system,” MOAD’s senior official Shib Anand Shah told IRIN in Kathmandu.
For the first time, the Nepal government (with US$31 million from the World Bank) is expected to create an agricultural information management system tailored for farmers, said Shah.
According to almost all major risk analyses, Nepal is among the most climate-vulnerable countries worldwide.
MOAD is preparing to launch the system in collaboration with the semi-governmental Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) and the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) by early 2014 in 25 of the country’s 75 districts judged to be most vulnerable to natural disasters. The goal is to pilot the system in four districts by the end 2013.
Until now, the government has only monitored water levels in rivers through real-time, manual data collection, which limited its capacity to issue timely accurate warnings for hydro-meteorological hazards, according to the World Bank.
The new information system will see the installation of three Doppler weather monitoring radars nationwide (WSR-88D – costing $2 million each) capable of forecasting heavy rainfall and drought through DHM.
MOAD and NARC will be able to alert government agricultural extension workers about the forecasts and instruct them to advise farmers, largely via mobile phones, on how to save their land (and themselves) during flooding.
Over 18 million (72 percent of the population, even in otherwise remote areas) people nationwide have access to mobile phones; an estimated 10 percent of the population has access to the Internet, according to Nepal Telecommunications Corporation.
For the few pockets with no access to mobile phones, the project’s intended main mode of communication, Shah from MOAD said the project will rely on radio stations to reach farmers.
Nepal has over 350 shortwave and medium-wave radio stations in all 75 districts reaching more than 90 percent of the population, according to the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters Nepal.
Local government agricultural offices have already begun registering farmer groups, some 50 to date.
“We will help to [translate] the weather data into a simple language [farmers can understand],” said NARC’s senior agricultural scientist, Anand Gautam.
For many years, NARC has advocated a system linking agricultural information with food security, something which now seems possible, said officials. “Usually food security is also affected by destruction of agricultural farms as a consequence of poor information and communication, not only because of natural hazards,” said Gautam.
He said timely information can help farmers to make crop-saving decisions, like planting weather-appropriate crops and early harvesting.
NARC is advocating that the government should institutionalize the pilot beyond the planned five years.
“If there is [a] break in the system and if it stops after five years, the crisis will again start for farmers,” said Gautam.
“There is finally an opportunity to bridge the information gap between the farmers and the government, which has not been done before on early warning,” he added.
But experts acknowledge the agriculture extension system – which will play a key role in the weather warning pilot – needs improvement. A 2010 UN Food and Agriculture Organization assessment noted weak motivation of agriculture technical staff due to low salaries and few benefits (senior agriculture scientists earn at most $400 monthly with no allowances); the frequent transfer of trained human resources; field worker placement that did not put “the right man in the right place”; poor career opportunities; and inadequate technical expertise.