Farm outputs, incomes in South Asia’s mountain areas to fall further as climate risks grow deeper, shows new study

Saleem Shaikh

Islamabad: Low agricultural production and income brought on by extreme weather events are deepening household food insecurity in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, a study reported.

Based on data gleaned from 8,083 households’ survey from the region’s four river sub-basins (SBs) – Upper Indus (Pakistan), Eastern Brahmaputra (India), Koshi (Nepal) and Salween and Mekong (China) -, the authors of the study conclude that majority of the households in the basins have observed in recent years more frequent incidences of floods, landslides, erratic rains, droughts, livestock diseases and crop pests, and blame these on climate change.

Mountain farmers, the study indicate, face transient food insecurity following the climate change-induced hazards. For, these [hazards] harm their local food systems, livelihood sources and block food supply from other areas.

Results of the findings published in the Food Security Journal of the Springer Link(September 2016) also identify policy solutions the opportunities arising out of changing climate for mountain farmers to fight the woes.

Farmers in remote mountain village of Mardan district (Pakistan) plant rice seedlings. Photo Credit: Saleem Shaikh

Abid Hussain, a lead author of the study, tells this scribe that the farmers have been altering their centuries-old farming and cattle-rearing methods and using outmigration as a coping strategy.

“Changes in farming practices include water conservation methods, change in sowing time and greater involvement with cash crop production such as potato, apple, cherry, apricot, pear and walnut, which are relatively more resilient to water-stress and have higher market value,” explained Hussain, food security economist at the Kathmandu-based Int’l Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Since the sheep and the larger animals, he adds, consume more fodder and water, mountain cattle farmers were observed lessening the number of larger animals and the sheep as a coping technique, and adopting local breeds goats for being resilient to water and fodder/forage-stresses.

Mountains cover around 24 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and host about 13 per cent of the global population. Dubbed as water towers, they provide key ecosystem services to billions of people in downstream.

Golam Rasul, another lead author of the study, tells this scribe in an email interview that socio-economic characteristics of the mountain communities in the HKH are not significantly different from those of the other mountain parts in the Asia-Pacific, Africa or South America. Nevertheless, the severity and magnitude of climate induced risks and impact on agriculture and food security are higher in the HKH region compared to other mountain regions.

“So, we cannot apply the study’s findings/conclusions for other regions,” Rasul stressed, a senior agriculture & food security scientist at ICIMOD.

Programmed head at the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) – South Asia, Pramod Aggarwal, says remittances from out-migrants prop up household food security. Yet, the outmigration has negative side.

“Outmigration and falling interest of the mountain youth in farming add to the low farm productivity. Households face frequent labour shortages, which is cause of increasing amounts of fallow agricultural land,” he said.

Rausl suggests that framing mountain-specific food security policies, introduction of conservation irrigation techniques and water-saving & climate-resilient crop varieties, diversifying income sources are must for food security in HKH mountain areas, he suggested.

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