The government’s inability to fund the major irrigation schemes is worrying. About 80 percent of the 108 irrigation schemes across the country are yet to get budget.
The schemes are for communities in major poverty hit areas and rice producing dzongkhags such as Lhuentse, Punakha, and Wangdue.
The 108 schemes measuring 700km, including 32 that will have to be newly constructed, will cover 23,822 acres and nearly 10,300 households. The majority require urgent repair.
More than 56 percent of the population depends on agriculture. Investment in irrigation, essential for numerous crops, could help to curb or even reverse rural-urban migration, which is challenging the country with rising urban unemployment and urban poverty.
The government has spent about Nu 191 million on building some of the major irrigation schemes. But this is too little given the magnitude of the irrigation-related problems our farmers face. We must do more, and do it quick before the villages empty or fields become jungles.
Dwindling investment in agriculture over the years, mostly in irrigation has led to rising imports of food grains costing us billions each year.
Renovation of the Khamdang and Taklai irrigation channels in 2012 and 2015 benefited 700 and 398 households respectively. These were initiated by the farsighted Fourth Druk Gyalpo in 1974 and 1988 which brought to life some 5,308 acres of paddy fields.
An ADB study showed Bhutan could increase the acreage of land under irrigation to 91,000 from 64,000 acres. It also shows availability of water at the district level is not a constraint for developing new irrigation areas if alternative methods such as conveyance or pumping are used. For an agrarian society like ours this must be the right approach.
Agriculture is capital intensive and the returns are not immediate. This makes it not so tempting an investment for political parties because they seek prompt results to impress the electorate for the next election.
The inability to deliver on the irrigation promise will hamper the outcome of the mechanisation efforts of the ministry. Without adequate irrigation, the power tillers and boleros will have nothing to do.
We don’t have to dig hard to realise the importance of such an enterprise. Last year the government distributed free saplings in Trongsa when the delayed monsoon killed their paddy saplings.
This is not an isolated case. The government invested hugely in hiring pumps to irrigate the fields in Punakha, Thimphu, and other areas affected by the delayed monsoon last year.
His Majesty’s The King’s national day address in Trongsa provided clarity. Agriculture presents many opportunities for our youth.
The Monarchs have granted more than 295,860 acres as land kidu to poor families. It is the duty of the government to ensure that they can cultivate and at least provide for themselves.
If given the much-needed water, study show that by 2023 the paddy self-sufficiency rate could increase to 75 percent from the prevailing 51 percent.
Do we not have money at all? Spending on irrigation is more logical than procuring a Prado duty vehicle, or beleros or taking unnecessary helicopter trips.
Without investment in various alternatives of irrigation, self-reliance by 2020 or the nation’s food security will remain a distant dream.
Some of the schemes have designs and paper work all in place except the budget. Expertise we have aplenty, but do we have the political will? There is still time and hope. If there is a will, there is a way.