COVID-19 Hinders Rice Planting in India & Nepal
Ramratiya Devi is used to farming in a challenging and changing climate. But this year, rice farmers like Devi living in river basin communities in East India are finding themselves caught between the looming monsoon season and the pandemic that has made planting impossible.
Devi grows rice and other crops in the Koshi River Basin in India’s Bihar state. She and her family rely on the rich, fertile soil near the river to grow the food they need to eat and sell. But they know this very well: as the river gives, it can also take away. More than once, she has experienced the devastation of losing her harvest due to unexpected floods.
Devi and her neighbors have learned to live more in harmony with the river. Through the Transboundary Flood Resilience project, carried out by Lutheran World Relief (a member of the Corus International family), they’ve learned more resilient farming techniques and have an early warning system in place that allows them to take action against impending floods to save their crops and belongings.
But now these farmers are facing a new challenge, unlike any they’ve faced before: it’s time to plant their most important crop, but the global coronavirus pandemic is standing firmly in their way.
Facing coronavirus during rice planting season
In this region near the border of India and Nepal, rice is normally planted between the last week of June and the end of July to take advantage of the seasonal monsoon rains that are essential for a successful harvest. This time of year, Devi and other farmers on both sides of the border are normally busy preparing paddy fields and purchasing the necessary supplies to plant their rice crop.
But this year, their preparations have been challenging because they are on their third month of restrictions due to COVID-19.
“Because of the lockdowns, input supplies like fertilizers and irrigation systems have been affected,” says Narayan Gyawali, program director for Lutheran World Relief. “Many farmers haven’t been able to buy seeds. Without these supplies, our land will be fallow. Certainly, there will be food insecurity,”
“If I miss rice cultivation,” Devi says, “I will have to suffer the whole year.”
Not just health: COVID-19 threatens livelihoods and food security
The potential loss of the rice crop isn’t the only problem.
According to Gyawali, most of these farmers are poor and don’t have sufficient land to produce enough food or income to last the whole year. After harvesting what they can grow, usually enough to last 3-6 months, many travel to larger towns or cities to work as laborers to round out their income.
“Due to the lockdowns,” he adds, “most of these farmers haven’t been able to leave home to earn money through labor work. Their livelihood has been affected greatly.”
Devi’s family is among those whose meager income has plummeted during the coronavirus crisis, and she says they’ve already used up what savings they had. She has a lot riding on the rice she’s not sure she’ll be able to plant.
Farmers who initially were able to travel in search of temporary work have since been forced to return home, and unfortunately, they have brought COVID-19 back with them. Gyawali says transmission in the region was almost nonexistent during the first several weeks of lockdown. Since the migrants have returned, however, cases have increased dramatically in recent weeks. This adds another layer of complication to an already desperate situation.
With COVID-19 knocking on their doors and the rice crop at risk, these families are facing a perfect storm of poverty, hunger, and sickness.
Lutheran World Relief is providing seeds, fertilizer, and farming supplies to assist farmers in planting, as well as helping them plan to ensure future growing seasons are secure. It is distributing food aid for families who may be unable to plant or find work. In addition, the Transboundary Flood Resilience project has put its early-warning disaster system to work to inform communities about COVID-19. The network of SMS, loudspeaker and house-to-house information sharing normally used to give advance notice of flooding has provided information on prevention, safety, and symptoms in coordination with the local government representatives, municipalities/blocks, security forces, and health offices.