3-9 July 2015 #765

You eat what you sow

Besides other hardships, earthquake survivors will have to deal with a rise in child undernourishment
Sahina Shrestha

Malnutrition among children was a public health emergency in Nepal even before the earthquake struck in April. Now, with rains blocking road access and with erratic nutrition intake in shelters children are especially vulnerable.

Following the earthquake, 70,000 children under five are at risk of malnutrition in the 15 affected districts and require urgent humanitarian support, according to UNICEF.  Although, the nutritional status of children in Nepal had seen an improvement in the past five years, there is a danger of backsliding post-earthquake. Higher malnutrition leads to a higher mortality rate.

“Before the earthquake, we were making relatively good progress in terms of reducing child mortality. Now there is a fear of sliding back to higher mortality again,” said Stanley Chitekwe, Nutrition Chief at UNICEF.

Chitekwe stressed the need to maintain dietary diversity for children over the age of seven months to avoid malnutrition. “When you feed a child you must give him food from four out of the seven main groups of food,” he said.

To ensure child nutrition welfare, UNICEF and partner agencies are focusing on five areas: breastfeeding, complementary feeding, therapeutic feeding and care, supplementary feeding and providing micronutrients to children and women.

“Nutrition is a major concern after a natural disaster like this, because farmers resort to coping mechanisms, including reducing the number of meals they eat and the diversity of their food,” said Somsak Pipoppinyo, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Representative in Nepal.

Disease and deficient dietary intake can cause malnutrition, but lack of access to health services can be an underlying cause. Post earthquake, although the damage to standing crops was not extensive, stored grain was buried, and the loss of livestock was high.

The Agricultural Livelihood Impact Appraisal conducted by Nepal Food Security cluster in six of the hardest hit districts of Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, Dhading, Gorkha, Nuwakot and Rasuwa found that there had been a significant drop in the consumption of animal products. Kitchen gardens were destroyed and there is a shortage of food. One in four households in the affected districts are female-headed, and these were found to be more vulnerable. With landslides cutting off access to many areas, malnutrition is expected to persist.

Nutrition experts are worried about the effect junk food and micronutrient powders distributed by aid agencies may have in children’s health. “Most food distributed as relief is packaged junk food. The government is distributing micronutrient powder and plum peanuts when it should be ensuring children get proper local grain and vegetables,” said nutritionist Aruna Uprety.

While the disruption in agriculture in the affected districts has not affected the whole country, it has put families dependent on subsistence farming at risk of nutrition security. There is also concern that emergency food distribution in some cases makes farmers dependent, and they stop growing their own food.

“To improve the nutrition of the most vulnerable farming families, we must continue to provide seeds for vegetables, wheat and other staple crops and feed supplements for animals,” said Pipoppinyo. “We also need to build more resilient livelihoods and support rehabilitation projects looking at landslides and irrigation systems.”

The government has worked with FAO to distribute 423 tons of rice seeds. FAO has also distributed 20,000 airtight grain storage bags, with 20,000 more to follow, nearly 20,000 bags (25kg) of animal feed, and 50,000 packets of mixed vegetable seeds.

But experts say this is hardly enough. “Nutrition and food security go hand in hand,” says Hari Dahal, former secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. “It is imperative that the government continues emergency food supplies to the affected districts for some more time, and plan to ensure long-term food security.”

Read Also:

Nepal’s quiet green revolution, Sonia Awale

Growing back, Sonia Awale

Animals also suffered, Sonia Awale

Living off the land, Editorial