Spectre of humanitarian crisis rises

Kathmandu, December 11

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has called on all sides to ensure free flow of food items across Nepal-India border points citing major disruptions in imports have caused food prices to soar, raising the spectre of another humanitarian crisis in the landlocked country.

Major disruptions in food and fuel imports from India have severely affected Nepal’s supplies and caused a worrying increase in food prices, says a statement issued today by the WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.

“If trade remains restricted and food prices continue to rise, a serious humanitarian crisis will be hard to avoid,” the statement quotes David Kaatrud, WFP regional director for Asia and the Pacific, as saying. “WFP urges all sides to once again allow the free flow of food items across the border to ensure that Nepalis, especially those who struggle on a day-to-day basis to feed their families, are not the ones who bear the burden of this protracted political stand-off.”

Many goods have failed to enter Nepal from India since mid-September due to protests in the Tarai and blockade on Nepal-India border points.

With Nepal heavily dependent on imports, especially from India, severe shortages, especially of food and fuel, are now being felt in local markets, says the WFP statement. And as supplies dwindle, prices of basic food staples, such as cooking oil, rice, lentils, sugar and salt are soaring.

This, according to the WFP, will have great impact on the lives of a quarter of Nepalis, who live on less than $1.25 a day, and, on average, spend 60 per cent of their income on food. “This means most have only a limited capacity to cope with shocks such as disasters and soaring food prices.”

The WFP says prices of lentils, pulses and cooking oil, on average, have gone up by more than 30 per cent since August and more than 50 per cent since last year.

In remote areas, including parts of the country worst hit by the April 25 earthquake and aftershocks, the price of food commodities has increased even further, doubling in some cases.

“For example, in Gorkha, a community close to the earthquake epicentre, a 25-kg sack of rice now costs Rs 5,000 ($46.80) — up from Rs 2,500 ($23.40) before the blockade. The price of cooking oil and sugar has also doubled in the town.”

At the same time, the price of fuel has sky-rocketed across the country. “The cost of refilling a cooking gas cylinder has increased from Rs 1,500 ($14.00) before the blockade to between Rs 8,000 and Rs 11,000 ($75 and $102) today, an increase of as much as 630 per cent.”

“People are struggling to feed their families as the cost of food rises beyond their grasp. Coming so soon after the recent earthquake, this crisis could severely test people’s ability to cope, and may lead to an increase in malnutrition,” Kaatrud says.

Last month, WFP warned that the fuel shortage caused by the border blockages was hampering earthquake relief efforts. There have been severe delays in WFP efforts to provide food assistance to more than 224,000 earthquake-affected people. WFP has only been able to deliver one-third of food supplies earmarked for distribution by the end of the year. The delivery of non-food items, like medicine and shelter material for winter, has also been severely affected by the dispute.