An abundance of green

Jun 29, 2017

Dil Bahadur and Bal Narsingh Kumal have managed to usher in transformational change in their community by taking the initiative to bring in a community pump-irrigation scheme that has turned the once largely unproductive hillside into a green vegetable paradise, an effort in which they were aided in part by the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre

One evening six years ago, Dil Bahadur Kumal and his brother-in-law, Bal Narsingh Kumal, gathered for drinks at the former’s house. The two talked about travelling to Malaysia as migrant workers.

The Kumals—members of an indigenous community whose main occupation is farming and fishing—are based in Simalchaur, a hamlet near Burtibang Bazaar of Baglung district in western Nepal. They had been living in their mud-and-stone houses on the hillside for five generations and, much like other young men leading hardscrabble lives in impoverished villages across Nepal, saw a job abroad as the only way to make a better living.

But, even as they were planning to apply for passports, the two changed their minds, and decided to stay and explore locally-available employment options, since this would mean they wouldn’t have to leave their families. The Badigad (the “big river”, in local dialect), flowed by their village, but they had yet to find a way to turn that water into a useful resource. A year earlier, however,  a 32-kilowatt micro-hydropower plant on nearby Nisi Dobhan Khola, a tributary of the Badigad, had come into operation, supplying electricity to 280 households in the village.

“We already had electricity and drinking water. After we decided against going abroad, we spoke to Shambhu Kandel, an engineer from the Dhaulagiri Community Resource Development Center, and asked him to help us irrigate our farms to produce vegetables,” the 36-year-old Dil Bahadur recalls. For the community, the water in the Badigad was a wasted resource. “We wanted to utilize it, but didn’t have the necessary means.”

The first major support came from MIT Solutions, a business consultancy firm based in Kathmandu, which, according to Dil Bahadur, received funding from a German aid group. “They provided funds for GI pipes and cement and we contributed our labor,” he says, adding that it took two years to complete the project. In total, the members of Simalchaur Pumping Irrigation Scheme raised roughly Rs. 1.6 million for the project, consisting of Rs. 300,000 in loans, Rs. 536,839 in self-investment, Rs. 300,000 as a subsidy from the Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) and financial and technical support from MIT Solutions worth Rs. 450,000.

As a result of those efforts, a motor can now be found pumping five to eight liters of water from the river per second, through a 300-meter pipe, into a cement and concrete storage constructed in the middle of a field. The structure, ringed with barbed wire, collects and stores up to 120,000 liters of water.

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At present, the concrete pond helps to irrigate a vast swathe of farmland—around 15 hectares, which until a few years ago, was lying largely unproductive—by means of sprinklers and drip irrigation techniques. More than 70 households have benefited from the scheme. And the management committee is already working on the second phase of the project, which is set to double the output.

Today, vegetables such as tomato, beans, cauliflower, cabbage and potato are flourishing on the hillside. “Before this, we used to buy vegetables that were brought from Butwal (a town about 70 kilometres south). They were not fresh and must have been produced using a lot of pesticides. But now we have so much vegetables that we are struggling to sell them all,” says the 39-year-old  Bal Narsingh, who lives with his large family of 12 including the family of his younger brothers. The father of three has also realized that more land is required to scale up his production of vegetables. “If we can lease more land and grow more vegetables and if we have enough water for irrigation, I see a huge potential here,” he says.  

Dil Bahadur agrees. He grew tomato and cabbage in his small plot of land, making more than Rs. 30,000 from the two crops alone last year. “For growing vegetables, you need plenty of land. The more farmland you have, the more varieties you can grow,” he says adding that the group is mulling over leasing a large area of farmland to collectively grow vegetables.

The winter months are ideal for vegetable production. In the summer, production diminishes. But the demand for vegetables soars during the months of July and August.

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Every so often, there do arise a few technical issues that need tending to. A few members of the community have been trained to handle minor glitches of the water pumping project, but they have to seek support from technicians in Butwal in case of a major issue. Sometimes, the vegetables are infected with diseases, leading to a diminished harvest. So far, the community has resisted using pesticides, but Kumal says he’s forced to use it for tomatoes. 

The village of Simalchaur is not far from the unpaved highway that connects Baglung Bazaar with Burtibang, the district’s second largest town. This landslide-prone road is part of the much-touted Middle Hill Highway that purports to connect the country’s eastern hills with the far western region. The Kumal community expects the road to be blacktopped soon so that they can transport their products to bigger markets in Pokhara and Butwal. Dil Bahadur already runs an eatery along it.

Although Bal Narsigh Kumal is worried about the current lack of market for his produce, he is still amazed by the transformation of the fields—where only maize and millet grew—into lush green vegetable farms in such a short time. “Nowadays, when I travel to other places in the plains and am forced to eat days’ old vegetables, my mind goes back to my own village,” he says. Indeed, in the past two years, they have gone from a community that relied on produce imported from faraway towns to thriving producers with surplus vegetables.

A diligent entrepreneur, Dil Bahadur also runs a grinding mill from his shop on the highway. When he is away attending meeting or running the Nishi Dobhan Micro Hydropower Project that he chairs, his wife operates the mill.

On a hot June afternoon, after Dil Bahadur has shown us around the water storage area, he recalls the moment when he and Bal Narsingh had mulled over going abroad, all those years ago. “If we had gone ahead with the plan, our family might have been better off. But now everyone in our community can take advantage of the irrigation system. It has brought about a change here,” he says.

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihoods.

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