Sustainable and Inclusive Irrigation: Investment Priorities for Nepal
Building climate resilience and food security in Nepal requires new ways of working within the irrigation sector. Nepal’s irrigation sector remarkably increased access to irrigation over the last five decades, moving from 70,000 ha in 1961 to more than 1.3 million ha in 2019. Increased private investments in groundwater wells and pumps for irrigation further increased the number of farmers with access to irrigation in Nepal, especially since the early 2000s. However, this is not fully recorded in official statistics. At the same time, the country reports that more than 70% of ground and surface water resources are not currently utilized – providing ample space to further expand and intensify irrigation.
But there is a puzzle: Agricultural statistics clearly show that despite the ubiquity of irrigation infrastructure, insufficient water use is the key factor restricting agricultural growth due to which many farmers use irrigation too little and too late (see Urfels et al. 2020). Factors restricting groundwater water use include high cost of irrigation, inadequate pump selection, late irrigation scheduling, and delays caused by queuing for pumps and wells, waiting for mechanics, and access to fields. To guide future irrigation programs in solving this puzzle, building on existing and novel research, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and its partners the International Water Management Institute (IMWI), Texas A&M University, and Cornell University worked with USAID’s Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) to develop a comprehensive framework for a Sustainable and Inclusive Irrigation Development for Western Nepal.
Research for the development of the framework showed that the intensification of irrigation can play a role in making agricultural systems more productive and resilient. However, this depends on the conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water. It also requires careful coordination among public institutions and the private sector to target and adapt irrigation development approaches so that they complement ongoing surface water infrastructure expansion efforts. This can be achieved by investing in three interlinked priority areas:
- Prioritize adaptive technology and water management practices that respond to local resource constraints and equity considerations.
- Build robust data and information systems to allow adaptive planning, prepare for climate change impacts, and support digital and targeted farm advisories.
- Expand farmers’ access to upgraded agricultural value chains (incl. for irrigation technologies) to improve access to water, returns on investments, and the creation of better, more inclusive jobs.
These investment priorities need to be supported by explicit consideration of the cross-cutting issues of climate change, gender and social inclusion, capacity building of people and institutions, and local empowerment. The framework further describes and analyzes a variety of socio-economic, governance, bio-physical, and technological enablers that can help to guide investments in sustainable irrigation intensification.
At the same time, the report indicates that unchecked intensification of irrigation in Nepal may result in seasonal or localized depletion of groundwater resources. A lack of data hinders the assessment of current groundwater trends and local depletion scenarios in Nepal. In response, the project team supported Nepal’s Groundwater Resources Development Board (GWRDB) in piloting an upgraded groundwater monitoring system to help the local detection of unsustainable groundwater use in Banke and Bardiya districts. Three different approaches were tested and evaluated. The best approach involved measuring water levels manually in 40 shallow and 8 deep wells, using digital tools that upload the data so it can be processed, visualized, and made available for free download (current website: https://gw-nepal.com/).
According to Bishnu Belbase, Executive Director of the GWRDB, “the piloted monitoring system is well suited to Nepal’s needs and capacities with large stakeholder demands for scaling it. Groundwater is crucial to many users and sectors including drinking water, national parks, and agriculture – all of which benefit from a digital, open, and transparent groundwater information system to make better decisions and design better policies.” As such, additional investments are needed to scale this pilot system geographically, improve its use cases, and integrate it with local, regional, and national planning and decision-making across sectors. With an improving monitoring system being built, investments for equitably intensifying irrigation can promote urgently needed agricultural productivity boosts while laying the foundations for a more climate-resilient agriculture that operates within sustainable ecological boundaries.
Author: Anton Urfels