AANGNA, Nepal — Ravi Ale has worked the family’s two hectares of land in eastern Nepal since he was old enough to help his father. But after a lean harvest this year, and with his cash running out, he will leave next month to look for work in India, along with five of his friends in the village.
The problem is drought – one that has lingered for more than a year in a region only rarely previously hit by dry conditions.
“Paddy (rice) and maize almost failed to grow as the monsoon brought no rain,” said Ale’s wife, Sunita, sitting outside her home in Aangna, a village of about 570 households.
“After a long winter drought we had expected a fair monsoon rain but the drought still won’t go.”
She said she earns some money working as a seamstress in a nearby market, but with the family’s harvests so poor her earnings can’t sustain the family of five.
Climate change is bringing tougher times for many farmers around the world, including those in eastern Nepal. A prolonged winter drought hit tea production in the region, and a weak monsoon season means vegetables and other food crops are expected to fail in many areas, farmers said.
“Water scarcity and drought were something alien to us a few years ago but they have become a new normal now,” said Ale.
Agricultural experts and local officials say they are worried by the increasing severity of drought in a region with only limited previous problems with it.
“Such successive spells of drought in a district ranked low in drought vulnerability is a surprising fact,” said Ananta Prakash Subedi, an environmental science professor at the Agriculture and Forest University in Chitwan.
He said Nepal’s National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) had ranked Panchthar district as one of the less-drought-vulnerable districts in a 2010 vulnerability mapping exercise.
And drought is just one problem facing the district, he said. Unusually high temperatures, which have brought worse-than-usual pest and disease problems, also are damaging crops, Subedi said.
“Even drought-resistant crops cannot stand as a strong option in such conditions as they are consumed by pests if not by drought,” he said.
The local district government has been providing relief grain and other food in drought-hit areas since August, said Narahari Niraula, an agriculture officer at the Panchthar District Agriculture Development Office.
But villagers worry the support won’t be sustained, and say it covers only a small percentage of their losses.
“For a month or two we can make a go with it but then we have to struggle,” complained Ale, who said he has never previously needed to migrate to find work.
Niraula said that many local people have used up their reserves of food and animals and now fear worsening hunger, particularly if the kind of drought seen over the last year becomes more frequent.
Making villages more resilient to worsening climate stresses will require changes, from more harvesting and storage of water to better pest management and the use of field schools to teach farmers new techniques, Subedi said.
Such changes are already underway in a range of villages in Nepal, and harvests are improving in those areas, residents say.
But the techniques have not yet reached Panchthar district, Ale said – in part because no one knew that they would be needed.
As a result, in Aangna, a growing trickle of farmers are now looking to migrate to tide them over until the next rains.
“I want to live here with my family but at the same time I can’t see my children go hungry,” Ale said.