High and dry

Winter drought in Nepal affects agriculture, hydropower and air quality

Surbir BK has to make a daily one-hour roundtrip to fetch water after springs went dry in his village in Kavre. The dry spell has forced many young villagers to migrate. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

On average, Kathmandu Valley used to get about 95mm of rain between mid-October and mid-February. This winter, there has been zero precipitation.

The last rainfall in Kathmandu was a late-monsoon shower on 12 October 2022. And while there was some rain and snow in Karnali and Sudurpaschim Provinces last month, the rest of the country has remained high and dry for nearly five months.

This prolonged winter drought has affected farmers in a country where 65% of agricultural land is rainfed. The wildfire season has started early. Rivers are running low, reducing hydroelectricity production by more than half.

The Meteorological Forecasting Division predicts that the dry spell will continue for at least two more weeks. In that case, this winter will be the driest in decades. Previous driest winters were in 2007-8 and 2016-17, but even then there was 10-15mm of rain between December and February.

Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology had used computer modelling to predict this winter’s drought due to the Pacific Lala Nina effect, and a Polar Vortex pushing the jetstream north of the Himalaya.

“We don’t like to say we told you so, but the forecasts have been accurate,” says Binod Pokhrel, meteorologist at Tribhuvan University. “The westerlies that were supposed to bring winter rain in January vanished along the way. The seasonal forecast also shows that there won't be much precipitation in the March either, this increase wildfire risk."

Nepal gets more than 80% of its rain during the monsoon between June-September with a generally east-west rainfall gradient, except for the region around Pokhara which receives the country’s heaviest annual rainfall of nearly 4,000mm.

The drought has also worsened winter air pollution in Kathmandu. There is no rain to wash down suspended dust particles. Smoke from wildfires have  worsened the Valley’s Air Quality Index.

“Winter wheat, mustard, dal, barley and vegetable crops are affected,” says Januka Pandit at the Department of Agriculture. “The lack of snowfall this year will also affect the apple and corn crops at higher elevations because of the proliferation of pests.”

Springs have gone dry right across the Himalayan foothills. Villagers have to trudge longer distances to fetch water for drinking and household use. In one village in Kavre, vegetable farmers have migrated to the city or abroad because of the lack of water.

“They would still be here if there was enough water for the cabbage and mustard terraces,” said Surbir BK, who was making a one hour roundtrip trek to a community spring with a water jar strapped to his back.  

Hydroelectricity production has fallen by 72% compared to last year because of reduced flow on rivers. Suresh Bhattarai of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) explains: “Most of our electricity comes from run-of-the-river plants without storage reservoirs, when the flow drops so does the power they generate.”

Nepal’s total installed capacity is now 2,300MW, but currently plants are only generating 700MW when total demand is 1,700MW. NEA is managing the shortfall with 500MW of imports. Even that is not enough and NEA is rationing power to industries.

There is usually more water on Himalayan rivers during the spring thaw, but since there was no snow the flow is low. NEA expects the situation to improve only when the monsoon rains arrive in June.

Average temperature across the country this winter has also been higher than normal. Lack of rain and higher temperatures increases the danger of wildfires, which in turn worsens air quality.

Says Binod Pokhrel: “The fire risk this year is much higher. We are already seeing wildfires that used to start in April-May.” 

Read also: Why is the air in Bhaktapur so bad?, Sushila Budathoki

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