High altitude agriculture - The challenges of adapting to the changing water supply in the Himalayas

Bhopal Pandeya - ESPA Fellow in the Mountain EVO team
February 24, 2015
Mountains are often referred to as ‘Water Towers’ as they provide fresh water to people and biodiversity. The Himalayan region is one of the few hot spots where several big rivers originate and supply water to hundreds of millions of people across the mountains and further downstream. However, higher up in the mountains especially in trans-Himalayan region, there is very little accessible water for local communities. The region receives very low rainfall and thus water supply is largely dependent on the timely occurrence of snow fall and ice melts in the upper mountains. The Upper Kaligandaki Basin (located in Nepal) is one such area where water scarcity is very high. Upland communities are constantly facing serious water shortage which particularly affects their agricultural land. 
Figure 1: A glimpse of agricultural lands in the Himalayan region
In Upper Kaligandaki Basin, croplands are located along the river valleys which act as oases in the Himalayas. Traditionally, local people practice an intensive cropping system, growing different crops and vegetables to sustain their lives and agricultural remains the main source of local livelihoods. But, local people are experiencing increasing difficulty with farming largely due to the unpredictable nature of water supply in local streams. They are now concerned by the changing pattern of snow fall in upper mountain areas and its impact on water flow in the lower regions. People are trying to cope with this situation by adopting various measures such as introducing more resilient crops like apple and walnut, using water harvesting systems and equitably sharing available water. This demonstrates local people’s extraordinary adaptive skills in managing their resources sustainably. To some extent, these measures are helpful in coping with these uncertainties. 
Figure 2: Apple farming in the Upper Kaligandaki Basin – an adaptive agricultural practice
Recent developments in the region especially the construction of roads and the expansion of human settlements are proving unsustainable and are making already scarce agricultural lands even more vulnerable. These activities lack proper consideration of how to maintain key ecosystem services provided by water and soil resources. Agricultural land and traditional water supply systems are particularly threatened by constant encroachment and land degradation (erosion and landslides) resulting from these activities. As a result, local communities’ main sources of livelihoods are in great danger. At the same time, the whole region is passing through a socio-cultural and demographic transformation which is also challenging especially considering the lack of enthusiasm of younger generations for farming. 
Figure 3: Development activities that clearly demand integration of a natural capital based approach 
In this situation, an innovative approach can build a better understanding of these major ecosystem services and integrate them into local policy and decision making. As one elderly local firmly put it, “our farmlands are highly productive, no need to go abroad for earning….we can earn better here. We produce highly priced crops, fruits and vegetables. But, there are some big problems…….water supply is becoming more disruptive, soil loss is extensive and there is also less and less participation of the younger generation in farming practices. We need to address these problems immediately, so we can improve the agricultural production and increase our household incomes”. Clearly there is a great need for a locally suited ecosystem services approach (guided by scientific, socio-political and economic understandings) to improve local livelihoods.