Nepali Times
"The food security situation in the western hills has greatly deteriorated."

Nepali Times: How bad is the food situation in Nepal?
Douglas Coutts
: It is logical that there would be a problem this time of year. This is the dry season, the food stocks communities build up over time in the western hills and mountains will be down. The farmers there don't have the land holdings and soil fertility to grow enough food to feed themselves. They buy the balance. We do know that the commercial market routes have been severely affected by the conflict, and that there have been many incidents where the military and the Maoists have blocked food going into certain areas. I am not talking only about our food, but food blocked by either side from the merchants. In many of the bazars, we have reports of scarcity and rising prices of staples.

How much worse is it than is normal for this time of year?
Before you had a scarcity problem. Now there is a new and very serious element. In the past, depending on where you were, how much land you had and how many mouths to feed, you would have a few months of production for your family and opportunities to earn income to buy the rest. The unrest has affected the traditional coping mechanisms of communities. Men used to leave to work and come back with cash or food. Much of that traditional migration is affected. Many of the men are often suspected by both sides when they transit. We gather the fear element is so high many who would otherwise go to find work are just staying put.

Have farming practices changed?
We're getting conflicting reports. Some talk about farmers actually growing less. They worry about it being taken. From our experience globally, in this type of conflict, it is typical that food stores are often plundered by insurgents. We hear from the government that Maoists in many areas are having problems of supply, and are really desperate for food generally.

So people are just not growing food?
There is obviously more food insecurity, much more than before. Communities probably also have fewer income-generation activities to earn money to buy food in the markets. The food, again, is not readily available and is more expensive. You add all that together and I think it is logical to say that the food insecurity situation in the hills and mountains in the west has probably greatly deteriorated.

In other countries famines have followed conflicts? Is that possible here?
In our business we use the word "famine" very sparingly. It is with great caution that I would even utter the word. Famine is sort of the final step of a long process. It is a state where people are literally dying on the streets, it means all the coping mechanisms are gone. A full-scale famine is rare. There are many warning signs along the way to famine. Long before a famine you'd have an increase in deaths during the difficult periods-in the west that would be during winter and the lean season. Children, elderly people, others who don't have sustained food supply during the difficult period succumb to diseases that a well-nourished person would recover from. That would be the first warning sign. Those who tend to last longer are typically males in the prime of their life. The young and the elderly, pregnant women, breastfeeding women have higher calorie requirements. That's a key indicator to observe throughout this conflict, or at the end of the conflict, or after. The other sign is migration. We are told that there are people migrating even as we speak, it seems to be primarily because of their sense of insecurity, not only food.

Gives us a ballpark figure for the population with shortages of food?
It is very hard to define. We have about 45 percent of the population below the poverty line-a government figure of people who consume 2,000 or less kilocalories each day. The highest percentage of that 45 percent you'd find in the areas we are talking about. The people in other places have more options available to them. The poverty issues are the same everywhere, but there are more income-generating access opportunities elsewhere than in the hills and mountains. Then we look at the percentage of people who earn one dollar a day on average and spend 70-80 percent or more of that on food. People die not because of lack of food but because of diseases they develop when they are weakened by less food over a sustained period. We know that there has been an increase in TB rates, that's an indicator of food shortage. TB is an opportunistic disease and affects people who are at risk. We know for a fact that TB rates in the mountains have increased. Put all that together, and that would indicate we are getting into a problem.

Can we then say that nearly half of all Nepalis face food shortages?
This is where we have to be careful. We don't want to look at it that way. Start at the national level, Nepal is technically a food-deficit country, but produces surpluses pretty regularly. The issue for us is not the national food production line. That only tells half the story. The issue is access to food. The very interesting thing about Nepal is that access is determined by income and geography. It's no sin to not produce enough food to feed your people, lots of countries don't. But they have cash to buy food. Here people's access is critical, and further complicated by geopgraphy, which is why we came with "food for work". The people we target are the poorest of the poor in the hills and mountains, the most food-insecure and most affected. They have no interest in working for cash because they have to buy high-priced supplies. That's how you know we are targeting the right communities. People up there are spending so much of their income on food anyway, and are interested in such kinds of programs.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)