First drought, then downpour

All photos: SMITA MAGAR

“How the dry earth must have sizzled today, kanchhi!” my sister-in-law Birmati said in delight after heavy rain finally fell in Jhumlawang village of Bhume Rural Municipality.

For eight-months it had not rained here in East Rukum, destroying the wheat and barley crops and rendering surrounding forests tinder-dry. So, when the rains finally came in April, it was a welcome relief.

The fires scorched the bone dry mountains this spring, shrouding the country in thick smoke for weeks. The pollution peaked in Kathmandu in March, making breathing difficult. 

While that was happening, up here in Jhumlawang residents were dealing with insect infestation on fodder grass, and they worried about how to manage fresh green grass for the livestock. There was looming worry about a possible famine.

The residents of Jhumlawang were in their fields the day after the first rain fell, but the winter wheat crop had not fared well during the drought. The desiccated stalks was turned into cattle fodder.

“We only got a handful of grain when there should have been many muri of wheat,” says Jokhi Kumari Thapa. “So we fed whatever was there to the cows and goats.”

As the rain began to fall in earnest, villagers ploughed their fields and began planting maize.   

Maize and wheat are major food crops here in the remote mountains of East Rukum. The terraces on the steep slopes are also suitable for potato, barley, mustard, hemp seed, beans, millet and various other spices that villagers farm to feed their own families. However, the yield is not enough them for the entire year. 

Subsistence rain-fed farming makes food availability precarious not just here, but across central and western Nepal. And this year’s winter drought meant that even fields that had good yields in previous years did not produce any harvest this year. 

The rain, when it finally came was relentless, and this meant that during the threshing season the farmers could not get as much grain as they would have liked. 

Indeed, the wheat harvesting process needs to go through multiple carefully planned stages that require considerable effort. The wheat is first harvested and its stalks dried. Then it is threshed, and the husk separated from the grain. The grain is then dried in the sun before being moved to storage. 

If the crops do not get enough sun during the process, there is a possibility of the grains rotting on the stalk itself, rendering the crop useless. 

My nieces Ritu, Swastika, and Barsha had gone to the fields to harvest the still-young crops to prevent this very problem from occurring.

“Grandmother has told us to cut even the small stalks of wheat, otherwise the grain will weep,” Barsha explained to her elder sisters as she got busy in the fields. 

A popular folklore has been passed down from generations of farmers in Jhumlawang. In it, the smaller wheat stalks that have been left unharvested in the field gather around the harvested stalks at night, and weep.

“The big grains fill bigger baskets, and we fill the smaller ones,” they say. “If not a thun (a basket similar to a doko that can retain smaller-sized grains), we could fill a phungo (a smaller basket) Then we could also feed our owners.”

My mother’s sister Hastakala Buda had gone to nearby Dangliga to harvest wheat. When my mother Bhagwati Buda asked her if the wheat there was more plentiful, my aunt laughed and said, “Poor things, those crops got neither mulch nor water, we barely got a handful of grain out of them.”

Sirmaya BK had come to help us with the wheat harvest. Out here in these parts, anyone who helps with the wheat-cutting is compensated with a sack of wheat at the end of each day. 

But since there simply was not enough harvest this year, no one had any work for Sirmaya. As she was preparing to return home, Sirmaya asked, “You don’t have enough wheat here to tide you over either. What are you going to eat?”

Meanwhile, my sister Krishna Buda, who had been stuck in her maternal home due to the coronavirus pandemic, was uprooting the wheat in the field, yanking out the dry stalks. 

Not a single grain had grown in them. Gesturing sadly towards the dry field she said, “Look didi, what a shameful sight. The livestock will feed on this now.”

Swastika, who had been looking on in frustration as Krishna uprooted the wheat stalks, added, “Phupu, we would have been so happy to harvest the wheat if the stalks had any grain on them.”  

In Dallepata, my uncle Lok Bahadur Buda, who had irrigation on his terrace fields, had exactly the kind of harvest that Swastika would have been happy to help with. Where other villagers had their seeds destroyed, my uncle, thanks to irrigation water, managed to harvest four muri worth of wheat. This was two muri less than the usual yield, but it was better than nothing.

Extreme weather like drought and torrential rainfall due to climate change have directly affected traditional agricultural practices in villages like Jhumlawang across Nepal, causing uncertainty and food insecurity. 

And while my uncle proved that irrigating the fields can result in a good yield even during periods of drought, the villagers here believe that irrigation causes the mulch and manure to settle beneath the soil and not help in improving the harvest.

This is why the irrigation channels built by various organisations in these parts are barely used by local farmers. The rains are uncertain, but at least it does not mess with the soil, they believe. 

Mankumari Budha Bista, vice-chair of Bhume Rural Municipality, says that there is no culture of irrigation among Rukum farmers, who prefer to rely on traditional practices. 

Now, just as the drought destroyed the wheat crop, continuous rain since April has damaged crops that do not require much water. The water destroyed much of the germinating potato planted in February. There was no rain when it was needed, and too much when the crops did not require it.

“It rained just as the potatoes had begun sprouting, and the water rotted the plants away,” says Birmati bhauju.

Even the usually hardy raised fields have been affected by the excessive and untimely rain. Heavy rains right after the maize seeds had been planted hampered their growth. Adding to their concern was a pest infestation in maize crops throughout East Rukum, and farmers are worried there will be locust invasion similar to last year.

Such a multi-pronged attack on crops means that the threat of food shortage looms large. 

Jhumlawang produces two major staples each year: wheat and maize. Continuous rainfall from January to September in 2020 resulted in less-than-optimum maize yield. The drought that began after September then destroyed the wheat crop. The heavy rains that began right after also wiped out the potatoes and this year’s maize.

Jhumlawang’s farmers depend on their crops for food security but for a reliable source of income — they are just trying to survive hand-to-mouth. 

Their immediate worry this year, however, is to save the maize crop and to secure enough seeds for the winter wheat crop.

Famine-like conditions in which farmers are forced to eat seeds to survive are not new here in Jhumlawang. But my relatives say that these crises have been occurring more frequently than in the past. 

Shiva Buda, who is in charge of the Jhumlawang Community Health Centre, has seen it all before. “In our village,” he says, “the destruction of one crop will bring famine, but the destruction of two staples is catastrophic.”

The last two times there were deadly famines here were in 1971 and 1977. Those who were alive then remember surviving on gruel and roots of nettles. Some farmers had to mortgage their jewellery for food. 

Some of the villagers recall walking for five days on hungry stomachs to get some government relief. “We were born at a time of great pain,” said one farmer.

There was, however, a silver lining from the famine. At that time, the village panchayat had asked the residents of Kyangsi, Seema, Morawang and Jhumlawang to dig a road from Ratwamare to Kwachiwang to transport relief materials for the 'Food for Development' program. However, that one road was not adequate for Jhumlawang residents during periods of famine that would follow. 

Ram Kumari Thapa recalls donning her doko and namlo and going as far as Dalsinge, Dhawanne, Domai and Ratwamare — as far as the limited road system allowed — in search of rice. As she travelled, Ram Kumari realised she was not alone. 

“When I saw the crowds of people,” she recalls, “I realised just  how many people were on the verge of starvation.”

Transportation of food has become easier ever since an unpaved road reached the village two years ago. “Now, as long as we have the money, the food can be transported right to our home,” says Ram Kumari.

This year, concerns about natural and climate-induced disasters among villagers have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions.

“God has sent us death and disaster simultaneously,” Birmati bhauju complains.

Dilman Roka, Chairman of Bhume Ward 3, met with Municipality chair Ramsur Buda in February to discuss the food shortage, and the threat of starvation due to food shortages compounded by Covid lockdowns. 

“Unlike in the cities, where transportation is not an issue, floods and landslides during the monsoon here not only interrupt  good delivery, but also make it expensive,” says Roka. 

At present, Jhumlawang Village Foundation and Jhumlawang Rural Cooperative have collaborated to transport essential food items from Dang. Village chief Chandra Singh Shrestha says that the local government has written to Kathmandu asking for relief materials for those living in areas that are threatened by food shortages.

Additionally, Bhume Rural Municipality has begun making long-term plans to integrate traditional and modern agricultural practices in the region. The municipality has been testing various food crops by allocating areas for agricultural study and research in Maring and is planning to give out grants and concessions to attract prospective young farmers. 

But most youngsters in Jhumlawang are not interested, and would rather go away to complete higher studies or find work abroad. This has created a shortage of able-bodied adults to tend the farms, contributing to decreased agricultural production further exacerbated by weather extremes and climate change.

Like many Nepalis, however, those who go overseas send money back families at home. This means there is some cash to buy food in case the crops fail — proving that much of the remittances Nepalis send home from abroad go for bare day-to-day survival.

Those whose family members remain in Nepal make rounds of the village to secure loans, borrowing from local lenders at 30-40% interest, trapping them in a vicious spiral of poverty.

Bhim Prasad Shrestha, a young farmer in Jhumlawang, is worried about his family going hungry this year. “Why would anyone want to farm if months of hard work is destroyed due to drought and downpours like this?” says Shrestha, who returned from Saudi Arabia after working there for eight years. 

He has been farming for several years, and describes some programs introduced by the government in East Rukum as impractical and unsuitable because they are more suited to the Tarai. 

Shrestha says what is most urgently needed is to connect Jhumlawang to the market, and to incorporate modernised farming in the region. 

Bhume rural municipality vice-chair Mankumari Budha Bista agrees. “It has become imperative to adopt timely and modern agricultural methods,” he says. “But we see that it takes time to catch on.”

One evening, the lightning illuminates the mountains in pink flashes. There is a crash of thunder, and the rain again comes down in torrents. 

My mother looks up to the sky and curses: “थुइया चिर्को पर्ने सर्ग! कस्तो राम देखा होलाई!” (Splitting the sky with lightning! Why such drama?)

In my mother’s anger, I see the pain and the hardship of farmers here who struggle to survive and adapt to a changing climate over which they have no control.

Translated from the original article by Shristi Karki.