Farmers worry as water shortage worsens

Long dry spells and erratic downpours have brought uncertainties to farmers in Barshong

Barshong is one of the smaller (of the 12) gewogs in Tsirang. It has a population of about 2,400 people, and an area of 21.2 square kilometre, vertically spread along the altitude ranging from 700 – 1,500 metres above sea level. The Sunkosh River flows at the foot of the hills that form the five chiwogs of Barshong.

The river, which swells considerably in summer, is a constant reminder to the residents of Barshong why mankind’s survival so critically hinges on the continuous availability of water. And farmers know better. Besides the considerable dry spell the geowg goes through, there are new water-related challenges that farmers have to deal with.

Rainfall is becoming erratic and unpredictable. Natural ponds are drying up. Spring discharge is decreasing. Farming is becoming difficult each year.

A baseline survey of the gewog, conducted in 2015 by the College of Natural Resources, found that more than 80 percent of the households faced water shortage for agriculture purpose, and about 70 percent said they faced water shortage for drinking and other domestic purposes. The months of March, April, and May were the driest, and farmers did not harvest rainwater.

While most water is used for growing paddy, it has become even more important in the last couple of years with more families taking up vegetable production.

The recently introduced conservation ponds in Barshong

“Water has always been our major worry,” says the 37-year-old gup Santa Lal Powdel. “Even our drinking water is sourced from Ratey Khola, some 20 kilometres away.”

The chiwog of Gangtokha, located at a higher altitude, is the worst affected.

“In the past, rains lasted for several months,” says Raj Kumar Moktan, 53, of Gangtokha. “We received rain from April till August. But today, you never know when it comes and when it stops. It’s become extremely unpredictable.”

People say rainfall these days lasts for shorter period, mainly from late May to the end of July with lots of variations in quantity. They also complain of increased pest and diseases and crop failure, especially during extended dry spells. The changing climate pattern has left people concerned about the future of farming.

Gup Santa Lal Powdel says people are now switching from the cultivation of more water intensive crops like paddy to less water intensive crops like maize and millet. He says water availability is highly seasonal.

Assessments carried out by the local government officials of Tsirang and experts from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) indicate that poor governance and management were some underlying causes for water shortage in Barshong. Further, farmers were not aware of small-scale efficient water management practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, plastic lined conservation pond, and water recharge ponds.

Therefore, the ongoing pilot project on rural livelihood and climate change adaptation in Barshong has introduced rainwater harvesting, including plastic-lined conservation ponds and water source protection.

With the aim to ensure water availability for vegetable production, especially in autumn and winter season, and thereby enhance food and nutritional security, the pilot distributed high-density plastic sheets to 20 farmers to build conservation ponds. Plastic sheets are used for lining, and people are encouraged to build the ponds in shady areas to minimise the loss from evaporation.

The plastic lined ponds store as much as 18,000 litre of water, and can be used for irrigation as well as for vegetable production. The water can also be used for raising fish and other domestic purposes. However, one major issue in Barshong has been its sloppy terrain that restricts pond sizes significantly.

Tandin Dorji has built two ponds since he is in the process of farming on a larger scale. He says the ponds are very useful, especially because his sprawling vegetable garden requires a lot of water.

“This is a simple technology with huge benefits,” he says, adding that more farmers are now interested to build the ponds. In fact, the pilot intends to establish additional 78 improved water-harvesting ponds in 2017.

Of late, there have also been efforts from the gewog administration to protect and better manage the numerous springs in the gewog since springs are the main source of water in Barshong. Unfortunately, many springs have gone dry and the discharge volume in others is decreasing by the year.

This could be both climate and human induced, says ICIMOD’s Natural Resource Management Specialist Nawraj Pradhan who visited Barshong recently to study the local water scenario.

“Rainfall patterns have changed from long monsoon cycles to erratic downpours and this is not giving enough rain to recharge to the aquifers,” he says, adding that the change in land use and building of roads without mapping spring recharge areas was also contributing to the growing water scarcity in the gewog.

However, better management of springs and deepening community ownership of water sources could help in the long run. Further, environmental impact assessments should reflect recharge areas and mark them as protected zones. Development activities, especially the ones that cause considerable damage to the environment, could be discouraged.

Contributed by Gopilal Acharya

Gopilal Acharya is an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at gopibhutanese@gmail.com or  at 17666222.

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