Managing seeds and agricultural losses in the wake of extreme climate events: Lessons from Nepal

05 Jul 2022

Assessment of floods in Nepal in October 2021, which affected seed availability, gives clues about actions to mitigate the impact of similar climate shocks on smallholder farmers.

A farmer picking up lodged paddy
A farmer picking up lodged paddy after the untimely flash floods in Dhanusa District, Nepal (Photo: Sravan Shrestha/ICIMOD)

This blog was first published on the CIMMYT website on 21 June 2022 and is available here.

As climate change-induced disasters surge around the world, it is the people of the least developed countries paying the bulk of the costs. According to the International Disaster Database, the number of disasters across the globe has risen by 74.5% – comparing data from 1980 to 1999 with 2000 to 2019 – and these numbers are expected to increase due to the most recent climate change scenarios. The major climate change impacts identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change relevant for Nepal include an increase in economic losses from weather and climate-related events, with significant agricultural losses.

In Nepal, for example, an unexpected and untimely excessive rainfall and flood in October 2021 caused massive damage to the ready-to-harvest crop across all major rice-producing areas of Nepal – threatening the food security and livelihood of the country’s smallholder rice farmers.

A rice damage assessment was essential to gather insights on the seed production losses and propose anticipatory measures for seed management and distribution to farmers for the next season. Thanks to a collaboration between scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a rapid loss assessment through a survey of rice-growing farmers was conducted to quickly assess the damage and recommend critical operational decisions to the Nepali government to mitigate the impact. With the help of an operational mobile app, Geofairy, the USAID-supported Nepal Seed and Fertilizer project (NSAF), implemented by CIMMYT, surveyed 253 farmers in six districts of the mid- and far-western region with a particular focus on the potential seed production losses for next year’s cultivation.

Unforeseen disaster

The 2021 disaster in Nepal came as a shock to farmers: the 2021 monsoon was proceeding as forecasted in the seasonal outlook, and by the end of the season, farmers were generally expecting bumper rice crops. The withdrawal of the southwest monsoon system was declared in early October. However, during 18–20 October 2021, instead of a dry spell, the country experienced a three-day excessive rainfall and accompanying flooding that caused massive damage to the ready-to-harvest crop across all major rice-producing areas in the southern lowland Terai Region of Nepal.

The partially harvested and standing crop suffered three kinds of damage. First, farmers near the riverbanks lost their ready-to-harvest paddy as it was swept away by flash floods. The second category was in the low-lying southern plains, where rainwater inundated the harvested, but not collected, paddy fields for more than two days, causing seeds or grains on the panicles to sprout. Sprouted seeds on the mother plant have reduced germination capacity and vigour, and cannot be stored for a long period while maintaining the germination capacity. The third damage was stem and root lodging (falling over) due to powerful winds.

Digital technologies for rapid damage assessment

With conventional approaches, on-ground damage assessments after a disaster can take weeks, sometimes months, limiting critical operational decisions in the first few hours and days. However, Nepal’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) was already prepared: Since 2019, the Ministry has been using satellite remote sensing for in-season rice area estimation through the USAID-supported SERVIR-HKH programme.

Thanks to the platform, experts from ICIMOD were able to share a satellite image-based assessment as early as 22 October 2021 – two days after the flood.

This existing digital crop monitoring platform was used to produce a rapid damage assessment to provide an analytical basis for initial decisions. In the rapid damage assessment, GMP IMERGE satellite data was used to measure the rainfall intensity across Nepal (Figure 1) and Sentinel-1 SAR satellite data was used to map flood water extent in the Terai Region of Nepal on 21 October 2022. The assessment also served as a planning tool for in-depth damage evaluation for farmer compensations.

Widespread flooding

Rainfall distribution
Figure 1: Rainfall distribution during 18–20 October 2021 (Source: GPM IMERGE satellite precipitation data)

Satellite precipitation data showed the occurrence of hefty rainfall in Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, and Jhapa districts in the eastern region. In the western region, Kailali and Kanchanpur experienced intense rainfall, while most of the central districts of the Terai Region remained below heavy rain.

Based on satellite images acquired, the flood extent assessment showed a major flood spread in the western parts, including Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardiya and Banke districts (Figure 2). The flood water extent remained lower in the eastern districts compared to that in the west. The causes of severe damage were direct rain pour and winds in the eastern region, and flood sweeping from riverbanks in the western parts.

Flood extent on 21 October 2021 in Kanchanpur
Figure 2: Flood extent on 21 October 2021 in Kanchanpur District (Source: Sentinel-1 satellite data)

Assessment results: Reduced seed quality and shortage of rice seed supply for the next planting season

According to a field-based assessment, the two most popular varieties of rice seed, Radha-4 and Sarju-52, were the most affected by the flood, especially in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, and Kanchanpur districts. Accordingly, 89% of Radha-4 and 42% of Sarju-52 seed production fields faced partial or complete loss in the surveyed districts. As per the district-wise loss assessment, 80% of Sirju-52 grown in Kailali and 61% in Kanchanpur suffered 50%–100% damage. Similarly, nearly 60% of Radha-4 grown in Banke and Bardiya districts suffered a crop loss ranging 50%–100%. This indicates a huge shortage of these varieties for the next rice season, which calls for immediate action to mitigate the seed deficit.

The survey found that farmers in Bardiya, Banke, and Kailali had severe or complete crop loss, while those in Kanchanpur, Kapilvastu, and Rupendehi had partial crop failure (Figure 3).

Level of rice loss (%) due to flood, based
Figure 3: Level of rice loss (%) due to flood, based on a rapid crop loss assessment in six districts of Nepal

Losses and the limits of early warning systems

According to the government’s final estimates, about 110,000 ha of rice crop area was damaged across the country. Respondents from the western districts reported that 80% of the farmers could only manage 50% or less than the expected harvest. The farmers reported an average input cost of USD 526 per hectare (NPR 63,162 per ha) and gross expected income of USD 972 per hectare (NPR 116,674 per ha) – leaving a very narrow margin of profit. To compensate for this economic blow, the government distributed USD 43 million (NPR 5.52 billion) to the farmers. However, with a total loss of USD 0.1 billion (NPR 12 billion), farmers still suffered a great loss.

Percentage of safe harvest in four western districts
Figure 4: Percentage of safe harvest in four western districts (Kapilvastu, Rupandehi, Kanchanpur, and Bardiya) of Nepal

Although early warning systems were in place in the surveyed districts, some respondents expressed low trust and reliability in the early warnings and only 20% of respondents were aware of the heavy rainfall forecast issued three days before the extreme event. Earlier studies in the Ganges Basin have suggested that a 10–20-day lead-time forecast is needed to avoid agriculture losses. However, predicting a high magnitude of low-frequency extreme events with sufficient advance notice is still a significant challenge in climate science.

How to mitigate and weather such challenges?

Nepal’s rice seed replacement rate is around 20%, which means that about 80% of farmers are not accessing good quality seeds every season. The addition of this untimely flash flood and the subsequent seed loss will further worsen seed availability, in turn contributing to food insecurity at the national level. The assessment findings have several implications for actions needed to mitigate future climate shocks.

  • Among other mitigation approaches, stakeholders need to assess in-country level quality rice seed availability and design a plan to mobilise preferred varieties from the surplus districts – less affected by the flood – to those in need.
  • During challenging times, maintaining seed quality standards might be difficult. Hence, stakeholders need to consider adopting a flexible quality standard such as ‘quality declared seeds’ in similar emergency scenarios. The ‘quality declared seed’ standard helps as an important intervention when normal seed production is greatly affected by drought and/or flood. It offers alternative seed quality standards for seed producers to provide seeds and ensure continuity of crop production.
  • Promoting climate-resilient varieties, especially lodging- or submergence-tolerant rice varieties, will better withstand flooding as compared with the susceptible ones.
  • Furthermore, farmers need access to a suitable crop insurance scheme to offset seed losses during extreme weather events. For instance, seed growers can purchase a group insurance scheme where customised premiums could be available to the members.

Some of the above mitigation approaches can be applied when extreme weather events are well forecasted and less severe. However, in the wake of an emerging climate crisis and limited mitigation options, there is a need to balance efforts on all aspects of adaptation, including the adoption of crop management practices including accelerated varietal turnover to modify threats and prevent adverse impacts, strengthen early warning systems with a focus on last-mile connection to minimise damage, and develop innovative mechanisms to address risk transfer and loss and damage compensations for sharing losses.


AbduRahman Beshir

AbduRahman Beshir

Seed Systems Specialist, CIMMYT

AbduRahman Beshir, Seed Systems Specialist at CIMMYT, has more than two decades of experience in getting better seeds and varieties to farmers. He works towards boosting farmer uptake of improved crop varieties by identifying ideal crop traits and strengthening seed systems.

Mohan Mahato

Mohan Mahato

Assistant Research Associate, CIMMYT Nepal

Mohan Mahato, Assistant Research Associate at CIMMYT Nepal, has expertise in research and development, including the maintenance and production of quality seeds for different crops. He is keen on implementing action-oriented research on agriculture.

Faisal M. Qamer

Faisal M. Qamer

Remote Sensing Specialist, ICIMOD

Faisal M. Qamer, Remote Sensing Specialist at ICIMOD, leads the food security and climate services-related work within the Geospatial Solutions Theme at ICIMOD. He frames geospatial information-based approaches to support decision-making processes in the agriculture sector. He contributes to capacity building and communication through close engagement with local, national, and international partners.


Sravan Shrestha

Remote Sensing & Geoinformation Associate – SERVIR, ICIMOD

Sravan Shrestha, Remote Sensing & Geoinformation Associate – SERVIR at ICIMOD, primarily focuses on crop monitoring, food security assessment, climate data analysis, and vulnerability mapping.