PLuS alliance team with LIBIRD staff and local residents in the Madhyabindu Climate Smart Village (photo LIBIRD)

Improving agricultural production in Nepal

Agriculture is vital to the livelihoods of many in Nepal, with 68% of the population estimated to be employed in the agriculture and forestry sector[1]. However, a number of factors including decreased financial investment and extreme weather events have threatened agricultural production in the already water-troubled country, bringing about food insecurity, poverty, and serious public health issues.

The World Bank has listed four main restrictions to increasing agricultural production in Nepal: a lack of irrigation, unavailability of inputs such as quality seeds and fertilizers, pests, and lack of access to advisory services and marketing.

A new project by UNSW and Arizona State University (ASU), partners in the collaborative PLuS Alliance, is tackling some of these issues.

Dr Fiona Johnson, Senior Lecturer with the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is excited about the results that can be achieved from this type of international collaboration.

This project is exciting because it uses the combined skills of ASU and UNSW academics and students to address an important issue for communities in Nepal

Dr Fiona Johnson, Senior Lecturer, UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

“This project is exciting because it uses the combined skills of ASU and UNSW academics and students to address an important issue for communities in Nepal,” says Dr Johnson.

Students and academics from UNSW and ASU are investigating methods for turning an invasive weed species into a useful resource.  The weed, Mikania micrantha, is smothering vital food sources with impacts felt throughout the whole ecosystem, including on endangered animals such as the One Horned Rhinoceros and the Royal Bengal Tiger in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

Research has identified that this weed can be converted into biochar, and used to improve the availability of nutrients in soil, increasing agricultural productivity. During a recent visit to Nepal, ASU students made around 750 kg of biochar in two kilns. Furthermore, biochar can be used as input for charcoal production, which may in turn reduce pressures on forests by providing an alternative source to wood for heating and cooking.

While UNSW students investigate the sustainability of different biochar production techniques, ASU students are designing devices that can easily harvest the weed from the forest.

“The project will provide technical expertise on optimising biochar production,” said Dr Johnson.

Hand pump for a household in Amaltari Village. Credit: Mark Henderson

“This will include considering whether it is better to use the biochar as a soil additive or if it is more economical to sell it for charcoal production. This has the dual benefits of reducing the pressures on the forest ecosystem by reducing the weed and providing new income streams for local residents”.

The second element of the project is focused on irrigation – a multifaceted issue in Nepal with old or inefficient infrastructure widely used and numerous water access and supply issues in play.

The PLuS Alliance is working with local NGO LI-BIRD who are implementing solar-powered community irrigation schemes as part of their work on the Climate-Smart Villages program, where solar-powered irrigation allows communities to grow vegetable crops during the dry season, providing additional food and income.

The Climate-Smart Villages are part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security – tackling the challenge of transitioning to climate-smart agriculture through solutions such as technology.

ASU students visited Nepal in May to help with the installation of a new irrigation scheme which is working well, and UNSW students will investigate the long term water balance questions—particularly in regard to climate change—and provide a framework to incorporate such assessments into future project designs.

This project requires a range of different skills, and UNSW academics have been integral in providing this support and expertise. Dr Rita Henderson, Senior Lecturer with the School of Chemical Engineering, is providing advice to the project on the biochar characterisation aspect while Dr Johnson is considering the sustainability aspects of the project—both in terms of the biochar and also the irrigation system design.

Professor Stephen Foster, Head of UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been instrumental in enabling students to contribute to exciting and innovative projects such as this — and by combining the project with ASU and students in Kathmandu, UNSW students are putting their education into a global context.