Recognising that climate change is altering weather patterns, which in turn affect crop production in Bhutan, specifically paddy cultivation, the government will invest Nu 2.2B into irrigation in the next five years.
Monsoon rains arriving later, and ending sooner than usual, is disrupting crop production and farm productivity, which, in Bhutan, mostly means rice.
In the mid and upper altitude areas, like Thimphu, Paro and Punakha, paddy transplantation usually begins in May and ends by June. Water requirement during this stage is very high and dependent on monsoon rains. But if the rains do not come on time and transplantation is delayed, crop yields decrease significantly, and entire harvests can even be lost.
In the south, the situation is the opposite. Paddy cultivation usually begins in June, when rainfall is high. But towards the second last stage, when large amounts of water are required, rainfall can stop for long stretches, which again significantly brings down yield of the crop.
“To enhance production and productivity, we have to ensure that we don’t have to wait for rain water to come,” said agriculture secretary, Tenzin Dhendup.
Unlike the past two five-year-plans, the government will now accord irrigation top priority, alongside farm mechanisation, in the current plan.
During the last two plans, the decentralisation process was also occurring, and local governments were more responsible for designing and constructing irrigation systems. “Unfortunately, we weren’t involved, so irrigation got side tracked,” said agriculture engineering division chief engineer, Karma Tshethar, who also added that farm road construction received more priority.
The agriculture ministry has identified 108 irrigation systems in the country that it will directly upgrade. These were chosen from a pool of 962 irrigation systems in the country. Of these 111 were not being used. There are more irrigation systems in the country, but these cover areas smaller than 15 acres. The 108 that were chosen were selected because they cover more than 70 acres.
Current irrigation systems are simply open earthen canals and inefficient. “Only about 40-50 percent of the water reaches the actual farmer’s field, the rest is lost somewhere in the middle as a result of seepage,” Karma Tshethar said. The open channels are also prone to blockage during the peak monsoon season, which can cause landslides downstream.
Upgrading the irrigation systems will involve either lining the entire channel system with cement to minimise seepage or installation of pipes. Upgrading to a pipe system, while initially investment heavy, is more advantageous in the long term. This is because it requires less maintenance, as the cement lined canals would still be prone to blockage and growth of plants and weeds. More than 90 percent of the water also reaches the paddy fields using pipes.
The agriculture department is also looking at installing pumps and creating reservoirs for some areas that lack adequate water sources. Pumping systems are already under construction in Lobesa, Punakha and another in Ramjar, Trashiyangtse.
Expanding irrigation systems on to dry land crops like potatoes and citrus will also be pursued. The agriculture ministry intends to cover 300 hectares of dry land in the present Plan.
However, investment required for the 108 irrigation systems is high and, so far, only 14 systems have received fund commitments. The government of India will be funding the 14 systems at a cost of Nu 270M.
“The vast majority, we’re yet to secure,” said Karma.
The government will also be looking for other donors besides India, including Japan, to help fund its irrigation efforts. It hopes to at least acquire funding for 37 in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The Japanese government is currently funding the up-gradation of the Taklai irrigation system in Sarpang. A Japanese company is also in charge of upgrading it.
Another challenge is one that is common for almost all government agencies: human resource shortage. The agriculture engineering division is facing a shortage of irrigation specialists, given that most of its trained and experienced ones have migrated to the hydropower sector.
If the 108 systems are completed by the end of the current plan, a little less than 24,000 acres of land will be brought under paddy cultivation.
Paddy crop production is currently at 71,571 metric tonnes (MT) a year, currently. A target of increasing this to 90,851MT a year by the end of the current five-year plan in 2018, through mechanisation and irrigation, has been set.
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