Ambitious irrigation master plan promises huge returns

Irrigation: Bhutan could bring under cultivation 27,000 acres of paddy fields and increase the paddy sufficiency rate to 75 percent in 2032 from 51 percent today.

This is according to the draft National Irrigation Master Plan (NIMP).

This would then bring 91,000 acres of land under cultivation including the 64,000 acres, the country already has under paddy cultivation.

The addition of new irrigation fields could propel the country‘s paddy production from 75,000 metric tonnes (MT) today to 145,000MT in 2032.

Cereal production is expected to increase by 16 percent. The country today produces 170,000MT annually, which will go up to 192,0000MT in 2032.

The total cost of implementing the plan is estimated at USD 135 million. The investment would accrue benefits in increased agriculture production, employment created in rural areas, support small agro-industries, and livestock development, among others.

The plan has been long overdue, agriculture officials said. In the past decade, in absence of a long-term plan, investments in irrigation dwindled affecting crop yield, especially of paddy, and led to fields turning fallow.

A long-term plan is needed because irrigation is capital intensive and the five-year plan is not enough for proper direction and to optimise investment, agriculture officials said. The five-year-plan activities only focus on minor repairs, which failed to bring about significant impact on yield.

The consultants, including Bhutanese, assessed overall land and water resources with crop patterns and irrigation requirements for each agro-ecological zone. The technical assistance team says land and water availability is no bar for expansion of irrigated areas in the country.


The land resources were assessed using land use and cadastral maps. The assessment showed 208,000 acres were cultivated in 2013. While 277,000 are cultivated at present, there are 403,000 acres of cultivable land. At least 50 percent of the cultivable land could be used as irrigable land, the team found.

Availability of water at district level is not a constraint for developing new irrigation areas but may need conveyance or pumping. About 29 percent of the existing irrigation canals have shortage or inadequate water supply.

The cropping patterns and corresponding irrigation water demands have been determined for all the dzongkhags. With hydrological models from the National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan (NIMP), consultants have studied the likely impact of climate change on agriculture.

The draft plan also suggests four interventions: building new irrigation, integrated crop and water management, land development and agricultural mechanization, and institutional development.

Technological options are mentioned for irrigation development for the existing irrigated fields. Cost benefit analyses have been prepared for all interventions with an operation and maintenance road map for the sustainable management of the irrigation system.

The major proposed new irrigation areas ranging between 1,000 and 6,000 acres are in Samtse, Sarpang, Dagana, Wangduephodrang, Punakha, Samdrupjongkhar, Tsirang, Trashigang and Lhuentse.

The draft plan recommends promotion of private sector for irrigation development support services, cooperative commercial farming, revisiting the irrigation policy to define big and small irrigation schemes and encourage private sector investment, among others. “Water regulation should address right of way for canals, and categorize irrigation schemes,” a technical team member said.

For the sustainability of operation and maintenance of the canals, the draft plan proposes to pool land, grant soft loans for maintenance and government subsidy to water users associations. The draft plan also proposes three units in the integrated water management section in the agriculture department’s engineering division.

There are also irrigation investment road map and financial plans, institutional vision for NIMP and economic evaluation of the plan.

The plan would be launched next month along with the National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, which is on the National Environment Commission Secretariat website for feedback.

A French consulting firm, Aegis, with Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) and Bhutan Water Partnership prepared the plan.

Tshering Palden


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