SALT in the Soil, Eyes on the Skies
From alternative agricultural techniques to meteorological stations in schools, NDRC Nepal has a unique recipe for community conservation and disaster preparedness
Upstream of the Banganga River Basin and across the Arghakhanchi District in Nepal, new crops are popping up in the soil. Pineapples, bananas, ginger, taro, peanuts, turmeric and legumes are all climate-resilient cash crops that local farmers have long hoped to grow, but lacked the means, techniques or capacity to kickstart — until NDRC Nepal began its project there.
Since 2007, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Center, Nepal (NDRC Nepal), has worked with local farmers and their communities to transform the socioeconomic and physical landscape in which they live and work. Led by Executive Director Dr. Dhruba Gautam and Program Director Madhu Sudan Gautam, NDRC addresses the concurrent roles that anthropogenic activity and climate change have in effecting environmental crises — essentially, how humans are making already bad disasters worse.
There’s plenty of work to be done to help rural and impoverished Nepalese communities better prepare for devastating wildfires, floods, landslides and drought. NDRC takes part in such efforts, helping communities form task forces and management plans to prepare and respond with skill. But NDRC also aims to make changes closer to the human source of the problem — among farmers in the field and in the households that use natural resources for warmth, food, light, and the very frames of their homes.
In 2007, NDRC began working in the won them the $30,000 USD Judges’ Choice grand prize in this year’s Solution Search contest, Farming for Biodiversity. NDRC’s project was ambitious from the start, aiming to fundamentally change farming behavior, organize total community participation in disaster risk management, and pump new life into the land. To its leaders, though, bold was necessary. With its forests, soil, rivers and wetlands in increasing danger, the Banganga River Basin called for the most comprehensive, inclusive and transformative conservation solution it could get.upstream municipality of Sitganga and the downstream Banganga municipalities. There, NDRC engages with indigenous groups like the Magar, Tharu and Madhesi people. Their efforts in these areas
Before NDRC began working with basin communities, upstream farming was often shortsighted. Looking to boost the waning productivity of conventional crops like maize, barley and wheat as well as livestock production, farmers took up slash-and-burn agriculture. They also worked with high tillage and unmanaged slopes (which can pull soil downhill and cause erosion) and applied synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to their crops. Environmental damage multiplied: NDRC Nepal saw that forest coverage had dropped by 60 percent since the 1990s, due to slash-and-burn agriculture, forest fire, landslides and climate change.
A key issue for farmers upstream was working with the natural features of the land, says Dhruba Gautam. The area is dominated by hills, with fragile, sloping terrain. It’s easy to farm in a way that degrades the land, especially without scientifically-considered methods. “The geography is quite inclined,” says Dhruba. “And floods carry out the soil, boulders, stones, and sand downstream and puts them in the agricultural land and important water bodies in the downstream areas.” With the difficulties presented by farming on sloping land, farmers were leaving for the flatter but increasingly scarce lands of the downstream areas, which ignited resource-sharing conflicts between native downstream residents and newcomers from upstream.
Nepalese nature and livelihoods were both in trouble. And on a regular basis, so were the lives of local people. As harmful human activity increased, its impact compounded the effects of natural disasters and climate change. The disasters came in droves, including erratic rainfall, longer drought and three to five wildfires annually that razed forest flora and fauna. With wildfires and erosion came landslides: in the past 53 years, 16 major landslides upstream have destroyed 6,112 hectares of land. Floods in the Banganga River have destroyed 8,000 hectares of land annually.
In 2007, NDRC conducted research on the basin with support from ActionAid International, which revealed the disconnected actions of upstream and downstream communities and the impact on soil, forests and water from human activity. They also saw the toll the issues had taken on local people. “They were totally hopeless, because the productivity of the land and the water resources were degraded year by year, and there were annual forest fires in their communities,” says Dhruba. “They almost lost their hopes that their livelihoods would be retained in the upstream.”
NDRC Nepal got to work figuring out how to address these problems. They held community consultations and meetings to identify opportunities and needs for changes that could be feasibly adopted. They anchored the effort in their understanding of how upstream activity affected downstream areas. “Our main intervention was: if we were going to try to safeguard the productive land and important water bodies in the downstream, we’d need to concentrate our focus on the upstream,” says Dhruba. “The upstream is the cause, and the downstream is the effect.”
They came up with a multi-step, community-driven approach that prioritized livelihoods and nature alike. They started with livelihoods: NDRC worked to build up the capacity of local groups, like the women’s groups, to save and start small-scale, resource-based enterprises. They assembled women’s groups in saving and credit initiatives, and taught them how to collect monthly savings and use them for small-scale enterprises. “Once they were fully capacitated in their savings practices, we linked the conservation message,” says Dhruba. “We said, ‘look, you are assembled, you are united, you have already started saving, you are already able to fund and provide some of the money from the small-scale enterprises within the community, your motto should now be: how do we conserve the land?’ Livelihoods depend on productivity of land, and there is no other alternative to farming on the hills upstream.”
We said, ‘look, you are assembled, you are united, you have already started saving, you are already able to fund and provide some of the money from the small-scale enterprises within the community, your motto should now be: how do we conserve the land?’Dr. Dhruba Gautam, Executive Director, NDRC
When NDRC Nepal connected conservation to livelihoods, people started to listen. After first developing the project in 2011 (with funding support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives), four years of hard work led to farmers changing their minds and adopting NDRC’s land use plan. In those years, NDRC left few areas of life untouched, helping communities institute big changes at home and in the land, individually and collectively.
NDRC Nepal showed upstream farmers alternatives to harmful farming practices like slash-and-burn agriculture. The group used locally-available, nature-based techniques over more advanced and expensive technology in order to improve productivity, restore soil biodiversity and control erosion. Their methods included sloping agricultural land technology (or SALT, an agricultural method that involves the planting of trees as part of an effort to conserve soil on sloping land), climate-resilient cash crops in high local demand (like banana and pineapple) and zero tillage techniques. “Alternative options are particularly important in the context of climatic variability,” says Dhruba. “Agroforestry and climate-resilient cash crops are important, as the production of conventional cereal crops are no longer profitable because of climate change, like changes in the rainfall calendar and patterns.”
Their work also explored the daily needs of local people at home, and introduced options for more sustainable living. Thousands of households in the area have depended on forest resources for household energy for cooking, heating and lighting, for timber in building and keeping up the structures of their homes, to roof their houses and animal sheds, and to make agricultural tools and green manure. NDRC Nepal helped households adopt concepts like improved cooking stoves (ICS), solar home systems, and biogas plants that reduce pressure on the forest.
While NDRC Nepal encouraged changes in the way people lived and worked, the group also helped communities restore their degraded lands. They installed conservation ponds and wells for irrigation, soil moisture maintenance and water source recharge upstream and downstream. They also put systems in place for the future protection of the land, like bioengineering techniques to reduce flood impact and safeguard farms and riverbanks. Disaster risk management was ingrained throughout the project, and NDRC Nepal mobilized local people in the Kapilbastu and Arghakhanchi districts to form seven disaster risk management communities to institutionalize flood-based early warning systems and sustain project results.
Adopting these practices demanded a major shift in local mindsets. Throughout the project, NDRC Nepal carried out a series of community awareness activities to show people the impact of their traditional farming activities, the value of incorporating conservation into their agricultural methods, and the importance of disaster preparedness. The group reached out to youth clubs, women’s groups, and natural resource-based institutions to get them involved. Youth clubs formed fire control task forces and joined the disaster risk management committees. At local schools, NDRC Nepal set up extracurricular activities around conservation awareness, including the creation of meteorological stations in two schools to encourage learning about nature, weather and climate change. NDRC Nepal also communicated its conservation message using outlets like local FM radio, TV programming, and street dramas.
Since NDRC Nepal started working in the Banganga River Basin, Dhruba Gautam has seen clear changes in local farming behavior. The use of agrochemicals in farming has decreased by 60 percent. And now, farmers are now earning up to 300 percent more cash from climate-resilient crops than they did from conventional cereal crops like maize and wheat, says Dhruba.
People in the basin are also more proactive in discussing and acting on disaster preparedness. Disaster Preparedness Plans have rolled out and are in place in each community. They now have early warning systems in place for floods as well, which help communities increase their lead time as they brace themselves for an incoming flood.
As people have made changes to their farming and other traditional behaviors, NDRC Nepal has tracked a wide range of benefits for rivers, forests and wetlands. According to the group, wildfires have been reduced by 80 percent, and the SALT method, zero tillage and other alternative options adopted locally have helped control soil erosion. The forest is denser, natural water recharge systems have improved, and soil micro-flora and forest biodiversity have flourished.
Dhruba says the results have encouraged the communities to keep carrying out the practices NDRC has introduced. Other communities have expressed interest in learning from them and reaping the same benefits. “Once people were able to harvest and earn income from their small chunk of land, and conserve the forest, and minimize forest fires, and retain the water source protection through different initiatives, they were convinced,” says Dhruba. “Now, they are convinced. Communities around the project communities are keen to replicate their methodology, to ensure their livelihood through sustainable land resource management.”
Visit NDRC Nepal to learn more about their work.