9 May 2005
May is the time of the year when a large number of migrant Nepali workers return from India to their home villages. They make the journey in order to harvest winter crops and start sowing summer crops, especially in the most remote hills and mountains.
With the notorious 'hungry season' over in rural Nepal, villagers are now in a rush to store enough food to last until August, when a second seasonal lean period begins and lasts for around four weeks.
For decades, food shortages have been part of life in rural Nepal during the pre-harvest seasons of March and August. Now, food experts are concerned about speculative media reports that the Maoist conflict is leading to a more serious food crisis. Some local newspapers have even gone as far as saying villages controlled by Maoist rebels are at risk of famine.
"If there is a food crisis according to what is reported in the media, then it should be based on facts and not speculation," Erika Joergensen, UN World Food Programme (WFP) representative in Nepal, told IRIN. "Rumours should not set the agenda. Only facts count. Our monitoring shows no sign of a large food crisis," added Joergensen.
Since October 2002, WFP has surveyed the food security situation in 32 districts of Nepal where 30 field monitors collect household and community data to provide factual information about the food supply situation in the country.
Food security experts believe that Nepal has not yet reached a point where lack of food is leading to a humanitarian crisis. But there is real concern that speculation about severe food shortages might set the alarm bells ringing internationally.
"The international community is bound to respond to such [perceived food] crises. Once their representatives come here and see that there is not such a big problem this will have serious impact on future relief and aid when and if a real crises take place," said a Western food security analyst, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Nepal's food supply problem has not reached the level of seriousness of Dafur in western Sudan, where food security has been destroyed by civil war and drought. Experts in Nepal are now calling for a realistic assessment of the situation.
"The problem is, most of the news about the situation in remote areas is taken from district headquarters. It's very important for us [WFP] to visit remote parts of the country by which we can assess the actual situation," Subash Singh of the WFP told IRIN. Singh has worked and travelled extensively in the districts of Nepal's Midwest region where food is scarce.
In the last few months, news reports of a national food crisis increased after the government's Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) was unable to airlift rice into some remote districts because of the Maoist blockade. Many district offices also complained that the NFC was not supplying enough rice to feed affected villagers. Lack of rice was interpreted as being the cause of a food crisis.
"The main issue is most of the rice is airlifted to the district headquarters. Once the chopper is unable to take rice due to some reasons, then news spreads that there is a food crisis," explained Singh.
In villages where rice is not available, people rely on alternative food like wheat, millet, beans and maize, officials told IRIN.
But analysts warn that very real problems do exist in relation to food security in many parts of Nepal.
In Humla's district headquarters of Simikot, the local food depot provides 3kg of rice per person every month at subsidised rates. Often this allocation does not reach the most needy and most goes to those who have money and live only a few hours from Simikot. Many people living more than a one day walk from Simikot simply cannot make the journey or are too poor to pay even the subsidised price.
There was a time when food was not a problem in the remotest villages of Humla that lie close to the autonomous region of Tibet. Here villagers used to trade livestock, rice and salt but this traditional system of food security has all but faded out. Many animals died from starvation following the rapid depletion of grasslands in the area.
Only 1 percent of the 5,556 sq km of land which make up Humla is said to be fertile enough to farm. Local agriculturists say that there is still plenty of land for growing assorted cash crops such as medicinal plants, non-timber forest products and mushrooms. These products can be used to trade in the southern plains for money to buy food. There is also enough land for potato farming and red rice plantations.
"What we really need is infrastructural development, especially the roads. The government needs ...just two years," explained Jeewan Shahi, ex-District Development Committee (DDC) chairman of Humla, 750 km northwest from Kathmandu, told IRIN.
Shahi wants the government to instead use the funds to invest in road construction that can link Simikot with Tibet. There is no navigable road and the only way to reach Humla is by flying from Nepalgunj, a key border city, 300 km west of the capital.
Agriculturists and food experts believe that there are opportunities to develop a secure system of food provision even in districts where supplies are short. Several agriculture-based NGOs are still able to work even in most remote areas without any hinderance from the Maoist rebels.
"The best the NGOs can do is to maintain neutrality. We have told both Maoists and the state not to come to our project areas with political bias," Pitamber Acharya from Development Project Service Centre (DEPROSC-Nepal) told IRIN. DEPROSC projects are established in 21 districts helping to develop irrigation, high-value crops and farming technology.
The Quick Impact Programme (QIP) is supported by WFP, the Department for International Development Fund (DfID) the UK's official aid body and United Nation's Children Fund (UNICEF). QIP is had already set up schemes in Maoist-controlled areas suffering shortages such as Bajhang, Bajura and Mugu in the Midwest and Farwest hilly regions. Here live many disadvantaged, marginalised poor inhabitants.
The QIP is helping local communities by developing rural access such as mule trails, footpaths and small wooden bridges. It also helps establish income-generating activities such as off-season vegetable cultivation and orchard development.
"In every agricultural sector from irrigation, farming to crop distribution, there has been no Maoist obstacle as long as the programmes are pro-poor based," economist Narendra KC, of Support Activities for Poor Producers of Nepal (SAPPROS-Nepal) told IRIN.
Community-based agriculture experts like KC do not believe that the conflict has severely affected agricultural activities in villages.
"The low production or barren land is not a direct result of the conflict. The villages of Bajhang and Bajura have often been misreported for several years as suffering from humanitarian crisis but that is not true," noted agriculturist Dr. P.B Singh told IRIN. Singh has over 30 years experience of working in the food sector, mostly in the far west of the country.
In villages where NGOs have been helping, especially in irrigation development, there are reports of increased agricultural output. Most food experts blame shortages on the lack of agricultural management and investment by previous governments. The lack of effective food delivery mechanisms has resulted in poor food distribution which has been further hindered by the absence of effective post-harvest food storage systems.
Speculation about an impending food crisis because of civil conflict is nothing new in Nepal, say the experts. The exodus from rural hill and mountain districts has been seen as a sign that people are moving to cities to obtain food but experts believe that there is no evidence of that. Food experts believe they are leaving for the towns because of better employment opportunities.
"It is clear that millions of small farmers, landless rural families and unskilled urban workers are food insecure but it is less clear whether there has been a real decline in food security over the past five years and whether any decline can by attributed to the conflict specifically," explain David Seddon and Jaganath Adhikari in their recent report "Conflict and food security in Nepal."
Monitors from the NGOs say close monitoring should continue instead of created false impressions by groundless or ill-founded speculation.
"To be able to respond in a timely way to a possible food emergency, WFP will continue to monitor and also plans to preposition emergency supplies," WFP's Joergensen told IRIN.
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