By Saleem Shaikh
DHULIKHEL, Nepal (AlertNet) - For farmer Sarswati Bhetwal, investing in crop insurance paid off in the very first year, enabling her to survive a severe frost in January that ruined her potato crop just a fortnight before harvest.
“Had my crop not been insured, I would have suffered financial losses, plunging into a possible debt trap and unable to prepare for the next crop,” said Bhetwal, a 47-year-old farmer in the scenic mountain village of Lamdihe, near Dhulikhel town, some 30 km (18.6 miles) southeast of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
Agricultural producers, including farmers and ranchers, generally buy crop insurance to protect themselves against yield drops caused by weather and climate hazards, such as hail, drought or floods, and loss of revenue due to falls in agricultural commodity prices.
Last November, Bhetwal cultivated potatoes on 1 ropani (roughly 500 square metres) of land at a cost of 15,000 Nepali rupees ($176.50) and insured her crop with a private company for 1,125 rupees ($13.25). The government paid an equal amount towards the premium.
After crop damage assessments, the insurance company recently paid out 80 percent of her financial losses, or 12,000 rupees ($141).
“This money enabled me to sow garlic and cauliflower this February. I hope the profit from these vegetables, to be harvested in May, will be financially helpful,” said Bhetwal, clearly happy about the outcome.
In Nepal, potatoes are sown in October and harvested by the end of January. The Kaveripalanchowk district contributes 55 to 60 percent of the country’s annual potato production, according to the Nepal Agriculture Research Council.
But 35 to 40 potato farmers there have suffered economic losses due to the damage done by the frost when the temperature suddenly dived below minus 2 degrees Celsius in the first week of January, and stayed that low for four to five days.
Bhetwal said she has never witnessed such a devastating frost. In total, it obliterated ready-to-harvest potato crops on hundreds of hectares in Lamdihe and several adjoining villages.
Local agriculture officials say they have yet to calculate the losses, but initial evidence paints a depressing picture of the widespread failure of winter vegetable crops.
Farmers say potato prices in local markets have jumped as a result. Now in short supply, potatoes sell for over 45 rupees a kilo, compared with 30 rupees in December last year.
Arjun Bahadur, another potato farmer in the village, said he has incurred around 135,000 rupees ($1,588) in financial losses as the frost destroyed the entire potato crop on his 9 ropani (4.5 hectares). The tenant farmer now plans to borrow money from a private lender, using his two-room house as collateral. For this, he may have to pay an annual interest rate of more than 20 percent.
“I will have to pay the rent to the farmland owner, and buy essential farm inputs for sowing the next vegetable crops to recover the financial losses if, God forbid, there are no unfavourable weather conditions,” Bahadur told AlertNet, while uprooting his damaged potato plants.
The majority of farmers nearby face the same tough choices, and many say they plan to get their crops insured in the future, after seeing how it has benefited Bhetwal.
She was one of only three farmers among Lamdihe’s 40 to 45 households who bought insurance for their potato crop. Extension officers from the agriculture department, together with private companies, had tried to promote insurance to the local producers. But few had shown any interest. That now looks set to change.
“We have learned … that by dint of crop insurance we farmers can survive crop failures caused by bad weather conditions,” 40-year-old Bahadur said. Up to now, he had not understood the potential advantages of the insurance programme, he added.
Others had been wary due to their dissatisfaction with the limited help offered by the government’s extension service, they said.
Bhetwal noted a recent increase in farmers’ interest in crop insurance to stave off economic losses from climate-related disasters like torrential rain or dry spells. Many farmers have approached her for help in taking out insurance, she told AlertNet.
Bed Mani Dahal, an assistant professor in the department of environmental science and engineering at Kathmandu University, said that in the last few years, local weather has become increasingly erratic and unpredictable, causing problems for mountain farmers, whose crops are highly vulnerable to rainfall variability and weather extremes.
“Rapid variability in weather patterns has resulted in crop failures or production losses in mountain farming areas,” he observed. “This has deepened poverty among mountain farmers and pulled many others into a debt trap.”
In this situation, crop insurance programmes can be beneficial in a number of ways, he said. By enabling farm production to start again after a severe weather event, it helps avoid disruption to local food supplies, as well as the high prices and hunger that can follow, he explained.
Dahal said the government should launch large-scale crop and disaster insurance programmes to make agriculture more sustainable and climate-resilient, and farmers’ livelihoods more secure.
TIMELY FORECASTS NEEDED
Another way of supporting farmers is to provide them with seasonal and shorter-term weather forecasts.
Many of Dulikhel’s potato producers complained they received no warning of January’s frost. If they had known in time, they could have acted to protect their crops.
Nand Kishor Agrawal, coordinator for the Norway-funded Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said weather scientists in Nepal’s meteorological department may have predicted the cold snap, but the information was not conveyed to farmers.
“Understandingly, there is an apparent lack of communication or an interaction gap between the government’s weather scientists, extension department officials and the farmers, which must be bridged to help farmers mitigate damage from extreme events with improved, timely weather forecasts,” Agrawal said.
Kathmandu University’s Dahal said radio, a key information source for rural mountain communities, should be used to communicate important weather information, but this would require greater interaction between meteorological scientists and local journalists.
“The impacts of climate change - in the form of declining rainfall and depleting underground water resources - are gathering momentum. The country needs to be prepared for a precarious climate scenario,” he said.
Agrawal said the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is facing a difficult period. Many socio-economic and environmental drivers of change are challenging the resilience of nature and humans, and exacting high economic and social costs, he added.
Measures to help people adapt should incorporate both indigenous knowledge, accumulated over centuries, and modern scientific support, he urged.
“Improving the understanding and ability of local people to better prepare for situations like frost will save the livelihoods of millions,” he said.
Saleem Shaikh is a climate change and development reporter based in Islamabad.