What agriculture sector needs to work on recovery process?


Madhukar Upadhyay

Context

The
agriculture sector, which is the base of the Nepalese economy, is perhaps the least
affected by COVID-19 pandemic as this sector continued to be operational even
during the lockdown. According to the Economic Survey 2020, this sector employs
about 60% of the population and contributes to about 27% of the GDP. However, the
reality is that very few farmers are able to produce enough to last for 12
months; a majority produces enough to hardly last a few months. Since
agriculture failed to provide enough income to meet the basic needs of the
farmers, let alone their rising aspirations, a large number of them, mostly
small holders, had no option but to opt for employment in the foreign labor
markets. Currently, about 56% of households in the country have at least one
family member working as a migrant labor to support their families back home. Many
of these laborers, upon losing jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic,
will return home, possibly to look for economic stability in the near-stagnant
agriculture sector.

Reviving
agriculture

Despite the
growth in the GDP, the economic base in the last decades has increasingly weakened.
Growth of the annual inflow of remittance from USD 3.5 billion in 2010 to USD 8.1
billion in 2018 and an all-time high of food import bill of over NPR 200 billion
in 2018 indicates a lack of employment and a huge food deficit in the country. A
prerequisite to reverse this is to increase domestic production. However, our farms
have inherent problems due to the diverse geography of the country.

Farms in
higher altitudes are low in productivity due to low temperatures; in the middle
mountains, which occupy about 42% of the country and have about 45% of the population,
the farms are mired with high rate of erosion and thus require constant maintenance
of land to maintain productivity. Constant change in the land-use, due to haphazard
construction of roads, settlements and other development works and subsequent
change in the local hydrology, affects the stability of the land and its
productivity. Floods and landslides turn productive land into wastelands,
destroy farms and houses, wash away crops, and damage water sources causing
them to disappear or deplete. In recent years, droughts and army worm
infestations have also increased damaging food production. Middle mountains are
being continually depopulated due to water shortages and food shortages.

In the
Tarai, the most fertile part of the country where almost half of the country’s
population lives, land is usually damaged by floods, although floods also add fertile
soil enhancing productivity. When floods strike, unfortunately a recurring phenomenon
for many areas, they leave a lasting impact on the economy and livelihoods of
the families.

The
overall cost of damages in agriculture caused by floods, landslides, and
draught in 2015 was about USD 26 million, whereas it jumped to USD 340 million
in 2017 when the entire Tarai, from Jhapa in the east to Bardiya in the west,
was flooded simultaneously. The loss incurred by irrigation sector alone was
USD 168 million that year. Come winter farms face the opposite problem – lack
of water. Lack of irrigation restricts food production during the winter. Year-round
irrigation facilities remain a distant dream for many farmers in the Tarai.

These
problems will just get amplified as climate change deepens. Studies have shown
that the loss in agriculture and water sectors due to climate change could
reach as high as 5% of the GDP in extreme years.

Post-COVID-19 recovery

In the
post-COVID-19 context, when the incomes from remittance, tourism, as well as service
sectors, which collectively provided more than 60% of the GDP; begin to
collapse and when hundreds of thousands of labor migrants return home, the
agriculture sector will be the only viable option left that can provide
employment and keep our economic base from sliding further. Revival of
agriculture can be a sustainable recovery path in the COVID-19 context. Strategic
and prudent steps taken to revive agriculture will help enhance domestic
production in order to avert any potential food crises, which experts
anticipate might happen due to disruptions in the supply of inputs over the
coming year.

However,
under the given situation, agriculture is stripped of its workforce. Soil
exhausted of nutrients and land degraded due to erosion. Large swaths of land
that were used for food production until a decade ago have now turned fallow. Unpredictable
cycle of floods and droughts due to climate change will continue to
increasingly impact this sector. We cannot afford to neglect it anymore than we
have already done. Therefore, these unaddressed aspects of our agriculture must
be addressed systematically if agriculture is to be recourse to maintain the
economic base. Soil erosion, land and water management, along with climate
impacts must be addressed with the same urgency and in the same spirit as the
government did with the corona virus. The government showed that it can take
necessary, drastic steps when required. At this juncture of economic recession,
agriculture sector requires similar and sustained attention. COVID-19 context
is an opportunity for us to reassess our priorities and orient our efforts in
strengthening the economic base, for which agriculture with improved soil
health must be made robust to stand against climate adversaries.



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