Where else in the world can you find Shitake mushrooms from East Asia, Kiwi fruit from China and red chilli peppers from Bhutan growing on the same mountain? Nowhere except the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)’s field station, which is located in a place called Godavari, just outside Kathmandu in Nepal. An entire degraded mountain side has been rehabilitated by ICIMOD’s researchers and scientists since 1992 and turned into an experimental field station. It is hard to believe that the lush green area, spread over 30 hectares, was once denuded of trees.
This is where ICIMOD comes up with the technology to help create resilient mountain communities. The focus here is on adaptation to climate change and the various interventions successfully introduced by researchers have been put on display. ICIMOD was created in 1983 and has eight member countries including India, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. There are scientists from all over the region working for ICIMOD and they publish regular reports and newsletters on the fragile state of our shared mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush/Karakorams/Himalayas.
Although Kiwi fruit is associated with tropical countries, ICIMOD’s researchers have demonstrated that you can successfully grow it up to 3,000 metres. This fruit has high Vitamin C content and farmers can sell it for a good profit. Another high value crop is the expensive Shitake mushroom. This can be grown on wild chestnut tree logs — the seeds are drilled into the logs and then sealed with wax. The logs are then stored in sheds in the forest and watered regularly — after a few months the mushrooms start growing on the logs and can be harvested and sold for a tidy profit!
Since access to fresh water is a recurring problem in the mountains, which is being made worse by climate change, the first installation that one comes across on the tour of the field station is a rooftop rainwater harvesting system. You collect the rainwater that hits your rooftop by channelling it into a large tank, where it is stored for later use in the house and kitchen garden. This simple but ingenious solution has already been introduced to many households facing water shortages in the Murree area by a local NGO.
Another intervention is the rainwater harvesting pond, which is lined with thick, blue coloured plastic by ICIMOD scientists to avoid seepage. These small ponds can be built on mountain slopes (wherever there is enough flat space) and they can easily store water for irrigation and for livestock use. Mountain communities are dependent upon their livestock for their survival so it is very important to ensure that they get enough drinking water.
Then there are examples of gravity sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation and hydraulic ram pumps (which use the momentum of water flowing downwards). The latter can be used to pump water higher up to villages located at greater heights. Researchers have also introduced what is called Sloping Agricultural Land Technology. This sounds a bit complicated but actually consists of growing different species of trees and plants close together. Dense, double hedgerows of trees or shrub species are planted along contour lines. This prevents soil erosion and improves soil fertility. In the long run, it protects mountain communities from land-sliding and the flat terraces can be used to grow cereals, vegetables and fruit trees.
The scientists at ICIMOD have also come up with various ways to improve cooking methods in the mountains — since foraging for fuel wood is a constant problem for villagers and the cause of deforestation. They have developed solar cookers and improved biogas plants. In fact, they have proven that you can use biogas at heights of up to 3,000 metres with their new Puxin biogas digesters. These digesters use bio mass like soft grasses (and kitchen waste) instead of the usual cow or buffalo dung and can run at least one stove and a couple of light bulbs.
ICIMOD has also successfully introduced bio-briquettes, which are now being used widely in Nepal to light cooking stoves and heaters. Beehive Briquetting Technology (BBT) converts unwanted bio-mass (weeds, paper trash, etc.) into charcoal in a charring drum. A mould (the only real cost involved) is used to turn it into solid fuel bio-briquettes, which can be ignited easily and produce smokeless burning thanks to the airflow through the various holes in the briquette. One briquette is enough to prepare a meal for a small family. In Nepal, many villagers have turned briquette-making into a side business.
Other interesting interventions include cool chambers, which are rectangular pits made of bricks and have a water channel running around them. They are used to store vegetables, food, etc. The cooling water that runs around the chamber prevents the vegetables from spoiling. There are also solar dryers that can be used to dry fruit like apricots, and a high altitude “Trombe House” with a solar wall that is so well insulated that you don’t need any heating! The solar wall, which is separated by glazing and an air space, absorbs solar energy during the day and releases it towards the interior at night through vents. In the summers, when heating is not required, the vents are closed. It is the perfect technology for homes built above 2,500 metres.
The last stop of the tour in Godavari is a visit to ICIMOD’s centre for sustainable apiculture and pollination. Honeybees are essential for the health of any eco-system, whether it is a farm or a forest and they actually help increase yields in orchards and kitchen gardens. Several Pakistani researchers were visiting the centre for there is now a focus on doubling the honeybee production in Pakistan. All along the Kaghan Valley you see honeybee boxes and villagers selling honey on the main road. It is heartening to learn that the technology is out there to help our mountain farmers adapt to climate change.