Climate change threatens to compound the challenges 

Chimi Dema

Increased reliance on imported food, achieving food and nutritional security and alleviation of poverty continue to pose a challenge in Bhutan.

According to a food and nutrition security assessment report in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) last year, future challenges for food security in the country could come from conversion of the limited productive agricultural land into residential land, loss of productivity, huge import of food requirements, and loss of food diversity in the local food system.

The report stated that although only six percent of the population in Bhutan remains below the food poverty line, the prevalence of stunting and underweight is still high. “About 21 percent of children younger than five years of age were stunted, nine percent underweight and about four percent were wasted.”

This, according to the report, indicates a lack of diversity in diets and deficiencies of micronutrients.

With only 29 percent of the arable land properly irrigation, agriculture in Bhutan is dominated by dry-land farming, which is likely to be further impacted by increasing droughts and moisture stress as a result of climate change.

It stated that due to poor irrigation facilities, agriculture in the HKH has remained largely dependent on precipitation. “This would make farming and food production prone to the vagaries of the weather and highly vulnerable to climate variability and climate change.”

The drying up of springs and water bodies, erratic rainfall, increased floods, increased dry spells, land degradation, and a rising incidence of pests and disease in crops and livestock, as a result of climate change would all pose additional challenges to food and nutrition security in the region.

To address food and nutrition security in mountain communities, the report recommended adopting a holistic approach to improve food and nutrition security that includes revitalising local food systems, and developing mountain niche products and services.

According to the report, local food systems including neglected and underutilized species (NUS) crops such as millets, sorghum, and buckwheat and local breeds of livestock have a huge potential to diversify the supply of food and micronutrients in the mountains, while enhancing farmers’ incomes and enabling them to access nutritious food.

“These crops and local breeds of livestock are also highly adapted to mountain conditions and resilient to climate-induced stresses like drought and frost,” the report stated.

Properly managing and harnessing the water in springs, streams, snow, and glaciers could greatly increase agricultural production and help to diversify local food systems, the report stated.

Increasing investment in the management of natural resources including soil, water and energy to improve nutrition and enhance agriculture production was also recommended

The report also highlighted the need of integrating a mountain perspective into national policies to food and nutrition security, enhancing knowledge and awareness about nutrition and reducing physical and socio-economic vulnerabilities in the region.

Meanwhile, the assessment also found that more than 30 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity and around 50 percent face some form of malnutrition in the HKH region. “Women and children suffer the most.”

The report stated that the prevalence of high poverty, natural resources degradation, and increased brunt of climate change are key factors affecting food and nutrition security in the region.

In the HKH region, limited natural resources coupled with low carrying capacity, limited research on rain-fed agriculture and mountain niche products, low agricultural productivity and limited industrialisation are adding pressure on food and nutrition security. “Rapid climatic changes currently taking place in the HKH ecosystem would compound the effects on the traditional food and agricultural systems in the region.”

Going by the report, the average ambient temperature in the mountains of the HKH is rising at a rate of 0.06 degree Celsius per year, higher than the global average, which has resulted in loss of snowfall and snow cover and rapid melting and shrinking of the majority of glaciers in the region.

Loss of the cryosphere, according to the report, is changing the amount and timing of melt, impacting water availability, and leading to a reduction in food production and food insecurity in the mountains as well as downstream.

While the climate of the HKH has changed significantly in the past, it is projected to change more dramatically in the near future. In the near term (2036-2065), the region is projected to warm by 1.7 to 2.4 degree Celsius for representative concentration pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 2.3 to 3.2 degree Celsius for RCP 8.5.

The report stated that by the end of the century, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degree Celsius, the HKH will warm by 1.8 degree Celsius. “This will have serious implications for agricultural productivity and food security and particularly for food availability across the entire region.”

The eight HKH countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.