Drought prompts emergency food operation

Kathmandu, May 22 :

The United Nations World Food Programme is planning its first ever emergency food operation in Nepal to counter a severe drought in the country’s northwestern hills and mountains.

The three-month plan, likely to be approved at the Rome headquarters of the UN agency this week, envisions 3,800 tonnes of rice and flour being delivered to the region by trucks, mules and porters, WFP deputy country director Jean-Pierre de Margerie said.

“We’re trying to borrow food from other projects so we can maybe do a first wave of deliveries mid-June,” de Margerie said in an interview.

“We’re confident that if we have the money we’ll be able to reach everyone,” he said, adding that a donors’ meeting could be held in the Nepali capital soon after the plan is approved.

Ten of Nepal’s 75 districts are affected by the drought, which is following the driest winter on record in the region, among the poorest parts of this badly impoverished country.

Earlier this month WFP revealed that 47 per cent of Nepalis do not have enough food to live active, healthy lives. About half of all children are malnourished.

But while the national poverty rate is about 31 per cent, in the Karnali region and affected adjoining districts it is 45 per cent, said de Margerie.

In normal years there is a ‘hunger gap’ in the Karnali, the period between harvests when food stocks run out and people survive by buying food with what little money they earn as day labourers or with cash repatriated by relatives who have migrated for jobs.

But the drought means that gap will stretch dangerously this year until the August-September crop is harvested.

Seventy village development committees (VDCs) within the 10 districts are ‘severely affected’ with crop failures of 75 to 100 per cent, according to de Margerie, based on three WFP on-the-ground assessments.

“People are starting to resort to damaging coping mechanisms,” he said, “They’re starting to cut the number of meals or the size of meals,” selling livestock and tools and even migrating.

“Many people have already run out of their food stocks and are now eating herbs and roots to survive,” Chandra B Shahi, an MP from Mugu districtsaid.

In February and March, French NGO Action Contre la Faim visited Mugu and neighbouring district Humla to assess the health situation, particularly of children. “It can be concluded that the acute malnutrition in the 10 surveyed village development committees is more alarming than expected and is an issue that needs to be addressed in terms of treatment and also in terms of prevention,” says the report of that mission.

ACF also discovered that children less than 30 months are 5.5 times more likely to be malnourished than children aged from 30 to 59 months.

And 20.8 per cent of women suffered night blindness during their last pregnancy, a result of Vitamin A deficiency.

The drought and extended hunger gap might have affected these results, concludes the report.

“But the causes of malnutrition are multi-factorial and the nutrition situation is also linked with a lack of diversified foods, with poor hygiene practices, with lack of women

education, and very poor availability of public health services”.

The remote region, where some villagers must walk five days to reach districts’ headquarters, has long been ignored by the capital Kathmandu. That neglect has been exacerbated by a decade of a Maoist insurgency, which, among other things, has chased many local health workers from their far-flung posts.

De Margerie said the WFP emergency operation will include fortified wheat flour for families with children under two and pregnant or nursing mothers, along with the rice allotment they will get at the start and end of a 20-day long food for work programme.

The agency does not want to simply give the rice to the people, fearing that could compromise its long-standing programmes of providing locals with food in return for local works, such as road building, that contribute to development, he added. “We consider this a very short-term intervention. We’re confident it won’t affect long-term development activities.”

Drought and femine in Karnali is not a new story in Karnali region. Every year it makes big headlines in the newspapers but there seems no serious attempt from any quarters in solving the problem.