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FEATURE: Research on small and medium scale Irrigation systems in Nepal

Simon Howarth, Team Leader for a new research project in Nepal discusses the climate challenges faced by irrigation in Nepal and CDKN’s work to help the government and farmers overcome these.

Irrigation in Nepal has a very long history, with some of the largest and oldest farmer-managed irrigation in Asia. Most of the population are involved in agriculture to some extent, but this is very vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoon climate. Although about half of all agricultural land has some access to irrigation, this is mostly supplementary and rarely sufficient to meet all demands. Furthermore, agriculture has been intensified in recent decades, with increasing requirements for irrigation in the dry season. Livelihoods have been diversified from a purely agricultural society to one partly dependent on off-farm income and rural-urban migration: irrigated agriculture was already under stress even before consideration of anthropogenic climate change.

Climate change is increasing demands for water as the temperature rises, and it is influencing the availability of water as rainfall patterns change, as well as having many other impacts. It may not all be bad news – increases in pre-monsoon rainfall might improve monsoon paddy production – but there are many challenges and many more uncertainties. Recent floods have been much greater than predicted and have damaged much irrigation infrastructure, so there is an urgent need to review the impact of climate change on irrigation and develop a plan of action.

This CDKN supported study focuses on small and medium irrigation, up to 2,000 ha per system, which accounts for about 80% of the total irrigated area and is most vulnerable to climate change as it largely relies on small rainfed rivers which have huge annual and seasonal variations in flow. These changes have already made irrigation management increasingly challenging, on top of the existing highly stressed situation – it is critical to investigate the vulnerability of irrigation and develop an improved approach for making it more effective and more resilient.

The project team, drawing on the international expertise of Mott MacDonald and the local knowledge of FMIST, CERD and Adapt-Nepal, and working with the Department of Irrigation has recently started a research project to look into these issues. We have set up a website giving background information on the project as well as the inception report and our plan for the study. Over the next two years we will investigate current performance, perceptions and problems on a sample of irrigation systems across the country, and use this in conjunction with a desk study of the institutional arrangements, technical requirements and management systems in the light of future projections of climate in order to develop a new framework and action plan. This will not only aim to improve climate resilience but also the effectiveness and performance of irrigation against the whole range of problems that face the sector.

Picture Courtesy: Mott Macdonald



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