Of Bhutan’s 7.8 percent arable land, only 2.93 percent is under cultivation. And the slow growth in the agriculture sector has compelled Bhutan to rely on imported farm products, increasing trade deficit.

In the recent time, food import grew by 16 percent per annum and export by 15 percent.

At the SAARC regional expert consultation meeting on water, energy and food nexus in Thimphu yesterday, Director of department of agriculture, Kinlay Tshering, said agriculture is the main driver for self-sufficiency and inclusive green socioeconomic development.

Agriculture provides livelihood to 62.2 percent of population, contributes 16.8 percent to GDP, constitutes 4.3 percent of the country’s exports, and provides employment to 58 percent of the population.

The reasons for the slow agriculture growth, Kinlay Tshering said, was because of decreasing public investment, shortage of irrigation water, low yield and high production costs, losses due to human-wildlife conflicts, limited access to markets, credit, inputs (seeds) and machines.

She also highlighted lack of skills to adopt modern agricultural technologies, underdeveloped infrastructure such as irrigation and road, scarcity of traders, loss of agricultural lands to development, rural-urban migration, and poor awareness on sustainable approaches.

Kinlay Tshering said that most of the country’s agricultural land is located along steep terrain between 31 and 50 degrees.

“As a mountainous country, Bhutan is vulnerable to natural disasters and impacts of climate change,” she said. “Therefore, Bhutan faces the challenge to grow enough food for increasing population.”

She said the targets were set such as giving focus to irrigation water, agricultural inputs and marketing support to increase agriculture production, which in turn increased demand for water and energy. “Shortage of irrigation water is a serious challenge to increasing food production.”

Out of 79,740 target acres in the 11th Plan, only 47,424 acres are irrigated.

“Of the total cultivated land, only about 18 percent is under irrigation,” Kinlay Tshering said. “While on the whole Bhutan does not face chronic food insecurity, there are pockets of hunger, particularly in eastern and southern parts.”

She said that in terms of food security, 51 gewogs were classified as “vulnerable”. “The most vulnerable groups are the landless farmers or farmers without sufficient land and livestock.”

She added that despite the availability of surface water sources, there are many localised water shortages as the settlements are mostly on mountain slopes.

For the development of the agriculture sector, she proposed targeted and commodity focused approach, transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture, enabling policy and legal framework, promotion of private sector, and contract farming.

She said: “With competing demand for resources and increasing environmental pressure, we should look at minimising conflicting policies and promote synergies in policies and instruments for more resilient and adaptable societies.”

Kinlay Tshering further said that agriculture consumes the highest percentage of water. “Water demand is expected to increase due to production intensification to keep pace with food demands of a growing population.”

Chief environment officer with National Environment Commission (NEC) said that the main challenge in ensuring water security is physiographic reality.

“Bhutan’s current water index stands at 3.08,” she said, adding that although there is no problem of water shortage, access to water is low due to the shortage of expertise and technologies to tap water.

Kinlay Tshering said that Bhutan should not be complacent about its rich natural water resources, but should look at sustaining them through research, cross-sectoral coordinated efforts and efficient usage.

Karma Cheki and Rinchen Zangmo