Nepali Times
Nepal's silent food emergency


Price rises in the last six months
The biggest challenge for the new Maoist-led government will not be who gets to be president or who gets which ministry. It won't even be the drafting of a new constitution. The greatest and most immediate test for Prime Minister Dahal will be the country's food emergency.

Unlike high-profile sub-Saharan famines, this is an existing food shortage made much worse by rising prices, and it will be the first national emergency that the new republican government will have to deal with.

A joint study by the UN's World Food Program and the National Development Research Institute (NDRI) warns bluntly: "There is a clear risk that rising food prices may undermine the peace process if not taken seriously by all involved."

Nepal already had a nutrition emergency: 41 per cent of the population didn't get enough to eat and half of Nepali children were underweight because of the chronic lack of food. But the global increase in food and fuel prices, Nepal's population growth and falling farm productivity have made an already precarious situation worse.

The figures are staggering:
• 2.5 million people in rural Nepal need emergency food aid
• 3.9 million people will also need help if food prices increase further
• 19.2 million people will be affected by shortages and price increases

Some farmers who grow surplus grain will benefit, but the biggest winners will be the middlemen. Most Nepalis have to buy cooking oil, coarse rice and kerosene from the market and these are precisely the three items that have seen the sharpest price increases in the past six months.

In Nepal, food prices have a direct correlation with transportation costs. The 25-35 per cent increase in freight costs announced this week means that the WFP will have to revise its estimates of the food security crisis. A third of Nepalis currently live below the poverty line, and this could now rise to half the population as family incomes are undercut. Rural Nepalis spend up to 73 per cent of their income on buying food.

"The food price crisis has so far received very little attention," the WFP's Nepal representative, Richard Ragan told Nepali Times. "For example, during a fuel crisis people can make the choice not to drive, but when they can't afford the cost of food they don't have the choice of not eating."

The crisis will have political ramifications, too. Public frustration could boil over on to the streets, and groups with a vested interest could try to exploit the unrest, leading to further instability.

"We can no longer afford to be blasé about the effects of food insecurity," adds Ragan. "How effectively it is dealt with will have a tremendous impact on the viability of Nepal's newly elected government."

Although the food crisis is nationwide, the shortages are most serious in midwestern districts like Jajarkot, Bajura and Dailekh, hard hit by more than two years of drought, blizzards and floods. WFP says 50,000 people in these districts have no food and no money to buy food. The midwestern hills have always been a food-deficit area, and people have coped by migrating to India to find work. The next three months before the next harvest will be critical, and there is an urgent need to deliver emergency rice.

WFP's own operational costs have increased by 26 per cent because of the rising cost of food and fuel. Nepal also competes with more high-profile hunger hot spots and recent natural calamities like in Burma. The UN says the first priority for food assistance should be the 13 per cent of the population who are very poor and landless and therefore at risk from the increased food prices. Another 35 per cent of the population grow some of their own food, but are poor and will need help to cope with rising prices.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)