Pouring concrete on rice fields

On Nepal’s annual Rice Day, a reminder about urban growth devouring paddy fields

Sipadol in Bhaktapur just a year apart between 2022 to 2023. All photos: AMIT MACHAMASI

Kathmandu Valley, once known for its bumper harvests of rice, has seen declining production because urban expansion is devouring once fertile rice fields. 

There are still some terraces on the outskirts of the city that have rice fields, but even these are threatened by new settlements. The same is true of Pokhara Valley, home to Pokhreli, Jetha Buda and other brands of indigenous rice.

The middle of Asar is time for rice planting, and 29 June was the supposed to be National Paddy Plantation Day. It is a festival not just for transplanting paddy seedlings on water-logged fields, but also for jubiliation and merrymaking.

This year, there was not much to celebrate on Paddy Planting Day. Only 10% of farms across Nepal have transplanted paddy seedlings, whereas the normal figure for end-June is double that. 

Rice plantation Nepal
An excavator makes way for land plotting even as a child prepares to plant rice saplings in Bhaktapur's Sipadol this week.

The monsoon has been starting weeks later than its usual arrival in Nepal in mid-June, which many experts blame on climate breakdown. This year, the rains actually arrived a week early in the aftermath of Cyclone Remal, and unleashed floods and landslides in eastern Nepal in mid-June, while the western half of the country was enduring a prolonged drought.

The clouds did advance up to central Nepal, but the rains fizzled out. When the monsoon did arrive in Kathmandu Valley on 27 June, it had been too little too late. Kathmandu Valley usually received 250mm of rain in June, this year the figure so far has been only 125mm.

The chronic lack of subsidised fertiliser during the planting season due to an inefficient government procurement and delivery mechanism also meant that many farmers were not ready to transplant paddy even if the rains came.

Rice is grown in Kathmandu and other mountaion valleys, in the Tarai and up to 3,200m in Jumla, which is famous for its nutritious red Marasi rice

The Tarai is Nepal’s rice basket, producing most of its paddy. Although the plains cover 15% of Nepal’s area, 53% of the population lives there. Here too, settlements along highways and major intersections are eating into rice fields. 

Rice planttion in Nepal
Kathmandu's unrestrained growth as seen from Halchok in 2020.
Rice production in nepal
In this photo from 2021, hills in the outskits of Kathmandu Valley have been cleared for land development.

So far this year, rice planting has started in only 3% of the area of Madhes Province because of the delayed rains and a prolonged heatwave. The province produces a quarter of Nepal’s rice in a normal year.

The western Tarai has been particularly badly hit by a heatwave that lasted into June with daytime temperatures soaring to 45°Celsius and staying there. Rainfed farms have not planted rice, and those that used to pump water from tubewells have not been able to do so because of a falling watertable. 

Outmigration from rural areas and falling rice production has become a chicken-or-egg story: is rice production falling because people are turning away from farming, or is declining paddy production driving people away from agriculture?

The annual Rice Day has therefore become not a time for celebration, but a reminder of how much Nepal is more dependent on the import of rice than before.

Nepal spent Rs35 billion last year to import rice and paddy, which was a slight decline from the previous year, but is still more than all its exports. Nepalis are eating more rice than ever before as people turn away from traditional grains like millet and buckwheat, and because of a falling poverty rate as well as the spread of the road network. 

Still, the country’s population growth rate is outpacing increase in rice harvests. Rice productivity has hit an all-time high of 3.8 tons/hectare with irrigation and mechanisation, but total production is not increasing as much because of a decrease in area under rice cultivation.

Nepal once used to be a rice exporting country. If current trends continue, Nepal will be spending nearly everything it earns from remittances in importing petroleum products and rice.