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UNEP: Nepali farmers diversify their income streams amidst climate crisis

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In the aftermath of intense rains during Nepal’s 2019 monsoon season, farmer Geeta Tharu found her house submerged in a pool of water. The rains destroyed Tharu’s grain stores, which eventually plunged her family into debt. It was a familiar story in Nepal, a country where the climate crisis has left many farmers vulnerable to extreme weather, including heavy rains.

To escape the debt, trap Tharu enrolled in a month-long training course that showed local residents how to start non-agricultural businesses. The course was offered by Practical Action with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Union. It was designed to help families diversify their incomes to better cope with weather extremes.

“The training imbued me with so much confidence that I made a mental plan to start a small enterprise,” said Tharu, who went on to open a restaurant. On its first day, Tharu made a US$9 profit. “It was a huge sum for me,” she said.

About 70 per cent of Nepal’s working population relies on small-scale subsistence agriculture. The fallout from the climate crisis, including more frequent and intense rainfall, has begun to disrupt the predictable weather patterns that underpin farming in the country.Climate-related disasters and loss of livelihoods are already leading to forced migration and displacement, increasing competition over natural resources, and sparking disputes over food, water and energy supplies.

In Nepal, the number of extreme rainfall events is projected to rise by between 30 and 50 per cent by 2050. That’s why it’s becoming increasingly important for Nepali farmers to broaden their income streams, says Silja Halle from UNEP.

“Climate change is already playing havoc on farming in Nepal,” said Halle. “Things will only get harder in the years to come, so it’s essential that rural Nepalis have the support and resources they need to adapt to their new reality.”

Nepal isn’t the only country wrestling with the fallout from the climate crisis. Human-produced greenhouse gas emissions have caused the Earth to warm by at least 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, a jump that is altering climactic systems. Nearly half of humanity lives in what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called climate change “danger zones”. The cost of adapting to shifting weather patterns, a process that includes everything from retraining farmers to building sea walls, is expected to reach US$300 billion annually by 2030.

In Sudan, rising temperatures and fluctuating rainfall patterns are also undermining the livelihoods of farmers and sparking competition over increasingly scarce resources. That’s especially true in North Darfur, where conflicts frequently erupt between farmers and pastoralists over access to fertile land and fresh water.

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Women there, who play essential roles in water management and crop production but are often shut out of political and economic life, are especially vulnerable to climate-related disasters. To change that, Practical Action, again with support from UNEP and the European Union, is working with women farmers to diversify crops, building communal homestead gardens with improved seeds.

“I planted eight holes with watermelon seeds I received,” said Khadeija, a resident of Kuuma Garadyat village who received support from the project. (She supplied only her first name.) “I harvested two or three pieces from one plant and consumed them with my family members.”

In Nepal and Sudan, the training programme is helping farmers turn their fortunes around. Tharu, the Nepali restaurateur, now earns about US$12 a day and has saved more than US$500, helping to lift her family out of debt and reuniting her with her husband, who had been forced to travel afield for work.

Women in Nepal and Sudan reported that the skills they gained through the project improved not only their economic prospects but helped give them confidence and a greater voice in community-level decision making.

These stories and the programmatic approach that underlie them have been captured in an online course. It’s designed to build the capacity of practitioners who are interested in designing projects that support climate action, peacebuilding and gender equality.

“As the impacts of climate change intensify, the EU-UNEP Climate Change and Security project serves as a critical example of how to support communities living on the frontlines of multiple, intersecting crises,” said Halle.

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