The agriculture sector, which is the base of the Nepalese economy, is perhaps the least affected by COVID-19 pandemic as this sector continued to be operational even during the lockdown. According to the Economic Survey 2020, this sector employs about 60% of the population and contributes to about 27% of the GDP. However, the reality is that very few farmers are able to produce enough to last for 12 months; a majority produces enough to hardly last a few months. Since agriculture failed to provide enough income to meet the basic needs of the farmers, let alone their rising aspirations, a large number of them, mostly small holders, had no option but to opt for employment in the foreign labor markets. Currently, about 56% of households in the country have at least one family member working as a migrant labor to support their families back home. Many of these laborers, upon losing jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, will return home, possibly to look for economic stability in the near-stagnant agriculture sector.
Despite the growth in the GDP, the economic base in the last decades has increasingly weakened. Growth of the annual inflow of remittance from USD 3.5 billion in 2010 to USD 8.1 billion in 2018 and an all-time high of food import bill of over NPR 200 billion in 2018 indicates a lack of employment and a huge food deficit in the country. A prerequisite to reverse this is to increase domestic production. However, our farms have inherent problems due to the diverse geography of the country.
Farms in higher altitudes are low in productivity due to low temperatures; in the middle mountains, which occupy about 42% of the country and have about 45% of the population, the farms are mired with high rate of erosion and thus require constant maintenance of land to maintain productivity. Constant change in the land-use, due to haphazard construction of roads, settlements and other development works and subsequent change in the local hydrology, affects the stability of the land and its productivity. Floods and landslides turn productive land into wastelands, destroy farms and houses, wash away crops, and damage water sources causing them to disappear or deplete. In recent years, droughts and army worm infestations have also increased damaging food production. Middle mountains are being continually depopulated due to water shortages and food shortages.
In the Tarai, the most fertile part of the country where almost half of the country’s population lives, land is usually damaged by floods, although floods also add fertile soil enhancing productivity. When floods strike, unfortunately a recurring phenomenon for many areas, they leave a lasting impact on the economy and livelihoods of the families.
The overall cost of damages in agriculture caused by floods, landslides, and draught in 2015 was about USD 26 million, whereas it jumped to USD 340 million in 2017 when the entire Tarai, from Jhapa in the east to Bardiya in the west, was flooded simultaneously. The loss incurred by irrigation sector alone was USD 168 million that year. Come winter farms face the opposite problem – lack of water. Lack of irrigation restricts food production during the winter. Year-round irrigation facilities remain a distant dream for many farmers in the Tarai.
These problems will just get amplified as climate change deepens. Studies have shown that the loss in agriculture and water sectors due to climate change could reach as high as 5% of the GDP in extreme years.
In the post-COVID-19 context, when the incomes from remittance, tourism, as well as service sectors, which collectively provided more than 60% of the GDP; begin to collapse and when hundreds of thousands of labor migrants return home, the agriculture sector will be the only viable option left that can provide employment and keep our economic base from sliding further. Revival of agriculture can be a sustainable recovery path in the COVID-19 context. Strategic and prudent steps taken to revive agriculture will help enhance domestic production in order to avert any potential food crises, which experts anticipate might happen due to disruptions in the supply of inputs over the coming year.
However, under the given situation, agriculture is stripped of its workforce. Soil exhausted of nutrients and land degraded due to erosion. Large swaths of land that were used for food production until a decade ago have now turned fallow. Unpredictable cycle of floods and droughts due to climate change will continue to increasingly impact this sector. We cannot afford to neglect it anymore than we have already done. Therefore, these unaddressed aspects of our agriculture must be addressed systematically if agriculture is to be recourse to maintain the economic base. Soil erosion, land and water management, along with climate impacts must be addressed with the same urgency and in the same spirit as the government did with the corona virus. The government showed that it can take necessary, drastic steps when required. At this juncture of economic recession, agriculture sector requires similar and sustained attention. COVID-19 context is an opportunity for us to reassess our priorities and orient our efforts in strengthening the economic base, for which agriculture with improved soil health must be made robust to stand against climate adversaries.
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