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Rice farmer Tashi shows his fallow land
Rice farmer Tashi shows his fallow land

Drying water thwarts rice self-sufficiency dream

If Bhutan cultivated all the land left fallow, the country would produce additional 10,323.315 metric tonnes (MT) of paddy every year.

According to the 2015 agriculture statistics, 6,345 acres of paddy fields were left fallow until 2015. Average paddy yield per acreage is around 1,627kg. This means, 6,193.989 MT rice is being lost annually. Compared with traditional mill, which produced 40 percent of rice, improved mill gives out 20 percent more.

Given the pressure on paddy fields due to the rapid drying up of irrigation water and urbanisation, the size of fallow land in the last two years could have increased. The report says that the paddy fields left fallow could be much higher than estimated, as the biannual survey excludes Gungtongs or empty households that do not engage in any form of agriculture activities.

In 2015, an average of 18 percent of farming households faced food shortage due to decreased rice production.

Why fallow?

It is reported that paddy fields remain fallow mainly because of drying up of irrigation water and poor agriculture practices. In many parts of the country, rice farmers said that availability of irrigation water is decreasing by the year.

In the last three years, Tashi, a rice farmer from Bayminang in Punakha, lost around 9,762 kgs of paddy after two acres of paddy fields had to be left fallow. The sixty-nine-year-old, who works as a sharecropper for his neighbour, has lost all hopes of recultivating the fallow land because of inadequate irrigation water.

Tashi said: “It’s worrying to see our water drying up every year. It’s not the water that is drying, but our food.” The water sources for both irrigation and drinking are fast disappearing due to global warming.

Punakha has 335 acres of paddy fields that are now left fallow. If fully utilised, the dzongkhag could produce additional 545.045 MT paddy every year. Today, the dzongkhag produces 10,622.683 MT paddy from 6,529 acres.

Like Tashi, one of the farmers in Kanglung, Trashigang said that spring water that he used to irrigate his field has dried almost completely.

“Part of it has been piped for drinking by the people,” he said.

Although no studies have been undertaken to ensure the disappearance of irrigation water due to global warming, rice famers said that the rising temperature contribute to the drying of water sources.

Around 700 acres of paddy fields have been lost to infrastructure development, especially roads, building and townships. Around 323 acres more have been lost to illegal conversion of wetland for socioeconomic development purposes and natural disasters.

For instance, Bajo town in Wangdue was established on paddy field. Infrastructure development ate up vast acres of the once lush paddy fields. The fields were left fallow also because of the wild animals’ attack on the crop and rural-urban migration.

Rice self-sufficiency

From the total area of 38,394 square km, 71 percent of the country is under forest cover; 51.4 percent under protected area.  Only 7.8 percent of the total land is arable. Of that, only 49,325 acres of land is under cultivation.

According to the agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji, 160,000 acres of paddy fields is required if the country is to become rice self-sufficient, which would produce 260, 320 MT of paddy annually.

However, the country has only 80,000 acres of registered paddy fields, of which only 49,325 acres have been utilised until 2015, producing 80,251.1775 MT paddy. Today, the country faces shortage of rice by almost 180,068.225 MT.

The minster said that given the limited scope of paddy fields, Bhutan would never achieve rice self-sufficiency.

“But we are trying to increase production by improving rice variety, developing climate change resilient variety, improving agriculture sector through encouraging mechanised farming, and reviving irrigation channels.

“We also encourage double cropping of rice, which are in practice in the west and south,” I hope with this mechanism we can at least reduce rice import.”

Rice import

According to trade statistics, the country in 2015 imported 83,646.083 MT rice and spent Nu 1.6 B. In 2016, the country imported rice worth Nu 1.9 B.

The report shows a sharp rise in rice import in the last five years. In 2010, rice import stood at 52,008.038 MT, which increased to 54,042.481 MT in 2011. Expenses also increased from Nu 847.059 million (M) in 2010 to Nu 851.923 M in 2011.

Rice import figure stood at 72,290.806 MT in 2012, which increased to 72,585.987 MT in 2013. Expenses recorded at Nu 1.2 B in 2012 increased to Nu 1.5 B in 2013.

In 2014, the country spent Nu 1.7 B for 79,375.476 MT rice import.

Tenzin Namgyel 

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