Climate change a threat to Bhutan’s food security

Conference: Bhutan has shown impacts of climate change increasingly over the years, but the agriculture sector, the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, has a long to-do list.

At the ongoing regional climate change conference in Thimphu yesterday, agriculture department’s deputy chief, Tenzin Drugyel said a glacial lake outburst flood in 1994 affected 94 households and washed away 16 metric tonnes (MT) of food grain.  A rice blast two years later cost farmers 80 to 90 percent of their rice harvest.

In 2000, Phuentsholing received 449mm, Tala 500mm, and Gedu measured 520mm of rainfall within 24 hours, close to or more than the mean annual rainfall of the country, which is between 500 and 1000mm.

Heavy rainfall, he said, caused flash floods in 2004 that claimed nine lives and damaged 162 houses, 39 irrigation channels, and washed away 22 bridges in eastern districts.

In 2007, northern corn blight ruined 50 percent of total production.  The following year, the country experienced severe windstorms directly affecting 320 households.

Climate change scientists say such incidents would only increase if measures are not taken promptly.

Today, self sufficiency in rice is 48 percent, beef 39 percent, pork 40 percent, chicken 76 percent, fish two percent, egg 63 percent, and vegetables 56 percent.

“We’re at a high risk should there be any climate change impact because we’re not food sovereign,” he said.

The country has 69 percent of the population depending on the agriculture sector, and 56 percent are farmers.  Only 2.93 percent of the country is arable land, of which 31 percent are slopes with a gradient of more than 50 percent.

Between 2007 and 2008, when the major food producing countries banned their exports, Bhutan suffered, he said.  A Food and Agriculture Organisation report then said food is on the shelf, but people are not able to access food.

Climate experts say there is not much time to implement  measures against climate change.

The sector has to invest more in research.  From the meagre outlay, only 0.5 percent of the budget is allocated for research.

Tenzin Drugyel said, “We lack specific research agenda to address the effects of climate change.”

He said important topics, like soil and water management, and collection and analysis of time series climate data in the light of climate change, have not caught the attention of local researchers.

The country’s food storage facilities also need fixing, as most of Food Corporation of Bhutan’s (FCB) storage facilities are old and a large portion of food is lost during storage.

FCB, as mandated by the government, maintains 320MT of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) food grain reserve, and 1,600MT of food grain as national food reserve.

But the country does not have storage facilities for other food crops or of small capacities. “Or even if they’re being built, they are small.”

“Good storage facilities with efficient management are crucial for timely food supplies during unforeseen food shortages,” he said.

The 1,307 existing irrigation channels are mostly open canal where water seepage and evaporation rates are high, and are only 30-40 percent efficient.

“Municipal water demand projection shows it will increase from 25.6M cubic metres (cum) in 2010 to 41.7 in 2020 and likewise irrigation demand from 460cum in 2010 to 498cum in 2020,” he said.

Sheet erosions are a common feature, sustainable land management technologies are being promoted, but with limited adoption by the farmers, the deputy chief agriculture officer said.

He said besides evaluating and adapting genetic resources (both plants and animals) resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses, including drought, pests and diseases, the country had to develop an integrated planning and network management system.

“We have to improve availability of water for food and animal production, develop and institutionalise pest and disease surveillance and forecasting system for crop and livestock across agro-climatic zones,” he said.

There is also a need to establish a reliable network for food distribution and cold storage facilities in each region. “Despite poor investment, the agriculture research centres have developed and released eight climate resilient rice varieties,” he said.

The country has discouraged shifting cultivation, which is one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gases.

The country has 70 percent forest cover, 10.43 percent shrub land, and bare areas make up 3.2 percent.  Less than 18 percent of the land is under irrigation and 60-90 percent of farmland is dry land.

Meanwhile, scientists say the large tree cover, especially fruit trees, could provide some respite to Bhutan in the future.

Dr Syed Javed Hasan Rizvi, of South Asia World Agro Forestry Centre, said, “Trees provide a safety net for farmers because, while crops are vulnerable to climate change impacts, trees can bear much more of such changes.”

“If everything fails, a farmer could survive on fruits for a few months if he has fruit trees,” he said.

He said agro-forestry could help in production of food and the peoples’ access to food.  While food production may not be a problem in the region, peoples’ access to it would be a serious concern, according to him.

“The supermarkets are full of foods, but people don’t have money to buy; this is where agro-forestry has a big role,” he said.

 

By Tshering Palden

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