Nepali Times
The west is hungry


The rains of the past weeks may have given Kathmandu respite from load-shedding and a false sense of hope that the long winter drought is finally over.

But nearly six-months without rain from October to March has devastated farming in western Nepal and the full impact is only now becoming apparent.

The arid Karnali Zone, which includes Humla, Mugu, Kalikot, Dolpa and Jumla used to be a food deficit area even in the best of times. But the conflict and the drought has made the situation much worse than most can remember.

"Many people have already run out of their food stocks and are now eating herbs and roots to survive," says Chandra B Shahi, MP from Mugu from where he recently arrived in the capital to take his oath of office. Farmers across western Nepal couldn't plant their barley and wheat and where they did, the plants just wintered away.

Early warning of the crisis had already been flashed in March in a food and nutrition survey conducted by the French INGO, Action Contre La Faim (ACF), also known as Action Against Hunger.

The food crisis is said to be especially serious in southern Humla, north of Kalikot, the southern belt of Mugu and Dolpa.

In Humla the situation is so bad that the Maoists have allowed their 'wholetimers' to return to their families to find food for their families.

"We don't want to sound too alarmist but the food crisis is already widespread in these districts," says Mireille Seneclauze, of ACF. Farmers have also exhausted all their coping mechanisms, livestock is facing danger from lack of grazing and even if villagers get money from relatives in India there is no food to buy.

Confidential documents made available to Nepali Times of a crisis meeting of food organisations and donors on 13 April drew attention to the seriousness of the situation and noted 'time is running out'. But no action has been taken so far. The crisis was also eclipsed by news of the political upheaval in Kathmandu and other cities.

"There is no time to lose and now the aid agencies need to mobilise their resources to increase the supply of rice and other food grains as quickly as possible," says Rick van Keulen from the Dutch development agency SNV. During his trip to Humla in March, he was shocked to see that wheat plants had barely grown 5-10 cm instead of the usual half-metre. Most of the farms had not even bothered to sow seeds.

The Ministry of Local Development (MLD) has been flying in rice from Nepalganj and Pokhara to Jumla and Simikot. But these airlifts are limited to the district headquarters. "The poorest villagers have to walk for five days to get 5 kg of rice and they never get them," explains Shahi. The royal regime had till last month stopped food supplies fearing it would get into the hands of the Maoists.

Estimates of people affected is hard to come by but aid agencies and local officials say in Mugu alone, about 18,000 villagers from 10 VDCs are severely affected. The UN's World Food Programme with support from FAO and SDC have sent assessment teams to seven food deficit districts of Karnali and will present their findings in 10 days.

"We are starting to have a contingency plan for a possible or potential response," said acting WFP country director J P Margerie. Some relief organisations say the situation is so serious that sending rice to the towns is not enough, food now has to be dropped from helicopters directly into affected VDCs.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)