Nepali Times
Security and food security


Almost one in four Nepalis will go to sleep hungry today. The same will happen tomorrow, and the next day. That makes Nepalis, in terms of proportion of undernourished, the hungriest people in South Asia. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Nepal adds 400 more people into this category every day, 150,000 more hungry people every year.

These figures are based on statistics several years old, and food security experts say the situation is sure to have got worse since then because of the widening insurgency, especially in the chronically food-deficit mid-western region.

The production, distribution and storage mechanisms simply aren't working, and hunger is spreading at an alarming rate. Ten years ago, there were 3.5 million underfed people in Nepal, 19 percent of the population. Today that number is five million, 23 percent, according to the FAO's latest global food insecurity survey.

The FAO will be holding its Asia-Pacific regional ministerial conference in Kathmandu 13-17 May, where the country's worsening food security situation is expected to be highlighted. If the insurgency is not brought to a rapid resolution, and if farm productivity is not improved Nepal is moving towards having one of the most serious food crises in Asia.

Our food production has remained more or less stagnant, though there have been occasional surpluses. The problem is, these increases, when they occur, do not translate into more food per head. The terrain doesn't just make growing food difficult, it impedes the government's ability to move food stocks around the country.

That was the situation before the declaration of the state of emergency and the escalation of the conflict in November last year. The FAO maintains that widespread poverty and slow food production which is not keeping pace with the growth in population, are the reasons for the increase in hunger in Nepal.

Even before the conflict intensified, 39 of Nepal's 75 districts suffered chronic food shortages. Sources who have recently over-flown mid and far-western districts told us that terraces are fallow even in the districts that should have begun cropping. With the violence spreading across the countryside and the general sense of insecurity, many have fled their villages. Of those who remain, many don't have the manpower to continue farming, or have eaten the seeds. Others may have just not planted this season's wheat since they think it will be looted by insurgents anyway.

In remote mountain areas like Humla, local food production is sufficient for only four months of the year. The people of the district also have few opportunities to earn money to buy food. The result is that every household in the district has to rely on some alternative, largely the food flown in by the government, itself plagued by poor logistics, disrupted flights and now the Maoist insurgency. Says Maya Lama, a resident of Torpa in Bargaun VDC in Humla, "We have not seen a plane in some weeks now. Last year's grain is finished, this year's hasn't been planted yet." It is not unusual to see people waiting in long queues at the food corporation offices at the district headquarters for coupons to obtain subsidised food. The local produce-potato, barley, buckwheat-barely lasts a few months.

"The increase in household food insecurity is worrying," says Gyan Prasad Sharma, an agriculture expert with the National Planning Commission. Once a food-exporting country, Nepal today imports close to Rs 6 billion worth of grain and other foodstuffs every year. People are still going hungry because there is not enough food in many areas where it is most needed, because people don't have the money to buy it with, or due to transportation and distribution problems.

"What's missing is a synergy between government, NGOs and private institutions to create an enabling environment to increase food security," says Tek Bahadur Thapa, regional director of the Department of Agriculture for the Central region. "Now, the security situation has made matters worse."

The conflict has already affected food flights to the mid and far-western mountains. Last month, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) suspended its food for work projects in Jajarkot and Mugu after Maoists looted stores. This has deprived the poorest of the poor in the poorest districts in the country from vital food supply. The WFP says some 15,000 people are directly affected.

"The implications are most unfortunate," says Basant Raj Gautam, program manager of the Rural Community Infrastructure Works under the Ministry of Local Development. "In Jajarkot, at least 10,000 people have lost their source of food for 60-90 days. And this is a time when there is nothing growing in the fields."

The food corporation stopped flying subsidised food to remote village depots in Mugu last year owing to the security situation. Remote and arid Mugu is a food deficit area at the best of times, and this suspension has affected at least 5,000 residents. "Not a grain of rice has been flown into the villages this year," says Mugu MP Chandra Bahadur Shahi. "But the number of consumers has gone up-police, security forces, the Maoists."

The district's quota of 3,000 quintals of rice has been delivered to the district headquarters, but since three bridges connecting the villages to the district headquarters have been destroyed, people can't collect rice-unless they swim or go through Maoist-infested areas. "People are foraging for roots and tubers," says Shahi.

It is difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the state of agriculture in no-go Maoist-affected areas. "One does hear of the Maoists carrying out cooperative farming in their strongholds, but everyone is too busy fighting to tend to farms," says Tulsi Gautam of the Agriculture Department Market Development Directorate.

Even so, there are some in government who do not completely agree with the FAO's projections. "The FAO doesn't take into account Nepal's food habits and consumption, the indigenous varieties of food, and local preferences," says one official who did not want to be named. "You can't base a report on rice, maize and wheat alone."

In general, Nepal's food grain production has been increasing in recent years, thanks to good monsoons and improved services. But food production is not keeping pace with the increase in population. Between 1990-2000, Nepal produced more rice, wheat, maize and millet. But barley production has fallen every year since 1995. For many mountain communities, increased rice production doesn't really matter, barley is their staple.

Jivan Bahadur Shahi, chairman of the Humla DDC, says the focus should now be on promoting indigenous cereals such as barley and millet, and encouraging crops like potato, pulses and vegetables, for their nutritional value and to enhance farmer income. "We get technicians who are knowledgeable about rice, but don't have an inkling about buckwheat or barley. I've often told planners, give us water, good irrigation systems, not rice."

Shahi is optimistic that a road being built in Humla, under the WFP's Food for Work Project, will allow villagers to exchange local produce like apples, walnuts and medicinal plants for rice from the plains.

It is clear that although the security situation has made the food situation worse, even if the conflict winds down, the structural problems with Nepali agriculture will persist. Nepali farmers are already hurt by their inability to compete with the economy of scale of Indian products. The open border has allowed a backlog of cheaper Indian rice to enter Nepal. "We haven't reached our production potential," says Thapa. "But even if we increased the yield, where do we store it, how do we distribute it, how do we market it. We don't have these mechanisms in place."

Some years ago, the government opened grain exports to Bangladesh, in the hope that it would get support for a long-term agriculture plan from the ADB. Before that could be implemented properly, the government reversed its decision.

The ADB-backed 20 year Agriculture Perspective Plan hopes to improve irrigation, fertiliser, markets and roads and targets a five percent growth in agriculture, largely cereals. It hopes this will reduce poverty to 14 percent, and narrow the regional imbalances in food availability.

But this appears unlikely. Last year, the agriculture sector saw a growth rate of 4.33 percent. This year it has dropped to 1.71 percent. What is now clear is that even if the food distribution channels are clear, there won't be enough to distribute.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)