When farmers from other parts of the country, especially from the east, come to the Punakha-Wangdue valley on study tours, they leave with a tinge of envy seeing the vast flat and fertile agriculture land. Many feel they could become rich farmers overnight given the potential of the vast flatlands with the great Punatsangchhu flowing by it, almost kissing the fields.
The reality is that farmers of the valley are short of water to irrigate their fields. They somehow manage for drinking. Sanitation is not a big concern as long as they have enough to cook their meals and wash their clothes. What they need is enough to irrigate their fields, the source of livelihood.
That farmers in Punakha are facing water shortage problem is a big policy problem. For decades we have been insisting on food self-sufficiency. Food can be only grown in places where nature favours. Topography and water is one. In the Punakha-Wangdue valley, everything can be grown. We have seen how agriculture has transformed lives and livelihoods.
The Changyul village in Punakha is not only known for the legendary Changyul Bum Galem, but also agriculture prospects. The first green chilies to hit the market from west Bhutan comes from Changyul. The flatlands, even if farmers are not the owners, has potential as vast as the fields. Without water, agriculture cannot thrive.
The pressure from urbanisation and the prospects of an easier life is threatening many to leave farming and come to the already crowded urban centres. The logic is simple. When farming becomes difficult, many look for alternatives. The false promise for better lives in towns and cities is leading to fallow land – no matter how flat or fertile they are. Shortage of water is the final nail on the coffin.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn all the attention. It has also revealed how growing our own food is important. Agriculture, still the mainstay for many and the largest employer cannot be neglected.
It is not only in Guma gewog of Punakha. Water shortage for irrigation is becoming a problem in many places. From Paro to Trashigang, Sibsoo to Bangtar, farmers complain about water. They have no idea how water sources that fed them for generations are drying up. They have no idea about new technologies in agriculture.
Our policy makers and researchers have the answers. While farmers continue guarding their small share of water day and night, technology in agriculture has advanced. The way we farm should change and farmers should be taught that. The Mochhu river is an eyesore for farmers of Changyul. They cannot tap it to irrigate their fields because they have no means.
Water pumps, an old technology is still new to our farmers. They cannot afford it. Small government initiatives are quickly forgotten after the ministers drive off after the inauguration, in flashy Toyota Prados. One such vehicle could fund water pumps or wells or new watershed management in a dzongkhag.
If we want our farmers to work in the farms, if we want to achieve the dream of food self-sufficiency or stop rural to urban migration, a growing problem, we have to rethink or prioritise agriculture. Investing in agriculture is one solution.