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Climate-smart agriculture: overcoming challenges in Bhutan’s agricultural sector

Jigmi Wangdi

Bhutan’s agricultural sector, the backbone of the country’s rural economy, is facing significant challenges that demand urgent attention. With agriculture and livestock contributing to 19.19 percent of the GDP in 2021 (a notable increase from 14 percent in 2012), the sector employs nearly half of the nation’s workforce and is projected to feed an estimated 837,288 people by 2034.

However, to meet this growing demand, Bhutan must address several pressing issues, including labour shortages, landslides, soil erosion, changing climate patterns, excessive rainfall or droughts, and human-wildlife conflicts.

The agricultural sector is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and natural disasters, as highlighted by Bhutan’s ranking of 32 in the Global Climate Change Adaptation Index. The impacts of climate change are already being felt, leading to a reduction in irrigation water, unpredictable and heavy rainfall, windstorms, droughts, and the emergence of new pests and diseases.

The reduction in irrigation water has resulted in a significant increase in fallow land, with only about 26,000 acres of wetlands currently under cultivation out of the registered 70,000 acres. Erratic and excessive rainfall has further compounded the challenges, causing extensive loss of land and erosion of soil fertility. In October 2021 alone, incessant rainfall affected more than 2,500 acres and resulted in crop losses of about 2,400 metric tonnes across 17 dzongkhags.

New pests, such as the fall armyworm, have posed a significant threat to maize cultivation since their first reported incidence in 2019. Additionally, Giant African Land Snails, reported in Bhutan since 2010, have caused substantial damage to vegetable crops. The citrus greening disease has also taken a toll on citrus production, reducing output by almost 50 percent over a span of seven years. Furthermore, the country has witnessed outbreaks of 13 different notifiable animal diseases between 1996 and 2021.

One of the key strategies to overcome these challenges is the adoption of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) technologies and management practices, spearheaded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The ministry is placing great emphasis on utilising real-time climate data to evaluate and assess technologies such as weather and climate services, leveraging this information to enhance crop production.

As part of the CSA approach, the ministry has introduced various measures to ensure efficient water resource management. These include rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation systems, and piped irrigation channels. Moreover, the introduction of climate-resilient crop varieties, such as heat-tolerant maize and citrus varieties, aims to enhance the sector’s ability to withstand changing climatic conditions.

Additionally, the adoption of climate-resilient farming technologies like mulching and greenhouse enhancements has become another crucial component of the CSA strategy. By prioritising investment in irrigation and sustainable land management (SLM) systems, as well as research programmes and activities, the ministry endeavors to address the challenges facing Bhutan’s agricultural sector effectively.

As Bhutan strives to secure a sustainable future for its agricultural sector, climate-smart agriculture offers a promising pathway. By combining innovative technologies, data-driven approaches, and resilient farming practices, the country aims to overcome the hurdles posed by climate change, natural disasters, and other pressing challenges.