In the mountainous regions of Nepal's far West, the connivance of several factors has led to a severe food crisis. Given the scale of the situation, Action Against Hunger has launched a number of emergency relief programmes and is trying to alert other organisations and the international community to the state of these forgotten people.
Nepal is often associated with trekking, beautiful landscapes and friendly faces. However, the country has been severely affected by a major food crisis for more than twelve months now, a tragedy that has largely gone unnoticed. The picture postcard image of Nepal is in stark contrast to the reality of the situation. In the far west of Nepal, part of the population, completely isolated and cut off from the outside world, faces a disastrous situation. The population of this region has suffered through 10 years of conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces, three consecutive droughts of an unprecedented scale and has been affected by a complete lack of infrastructure. People are unable to lead normal lives under these conditions and are struggling to survive.
Hope for peace
As a result of the conflict, the already precarious living conditions of the population in this isolated area have become even worse. Public services such as education, health and infrastructure, which are already scarce have been disrupted to a great extent. People are often extorted by rebels for food and money, in addition to being forced to participate in meetings, sometimes for several days, preventing them from working in the fields.
Even so, there is still a glimmer of hope: a historic peace agreement was signed on 15 November 2006, putting an end to 10 years of civil war. Today, Nepal is well on its way to peace. A process of disarmament is under way and an interim government and constitution have been adopted until general elections, scheduled for late 2007, are national advances is yet to be felt in the remote corners of Nepal. In the Maoist-controlled regions of Bahjang, Mugu and Humla where Action Against Hunger is present, the population is still severely affected by high taxation, forced conscription and other hardships.
An unprecedented drought
During 2005 and 2006 parts of West Nepal were hit by the worst drought in 30 years resulting in a sharp decline in agricultural production. Improved crop yields in December 2006 were insufficient in addressing the problem. Given the living conditions of the Mugu and Humla populations (the worstaffected districts), one good farming season will not be sufficient in alleviating the situation. Other consequences of the drought include a lack of drinking water and further deterioration in already poor hygiene conditions. There has been an increase in water-borne diseases resulting in diarrhoea and dysentery. Due to lack of adequate treatment, those affected are at high risk of suffering from the worst forms of malnutrition.
Isolation: the root cause of all problems
Beyond drought-related issues, isolation is the root cause of a number of other problems causing and sustaining the food crisis. There is only one healthcare centre in the region, which caters to the needs of seven sub-centres. These centres are staffed by a total of three employees and orders for medical supplies are only made once a year. Nearly two-thirds of the local community do not even have access to these centres as they are too far away. According to an August 2006 survey carried out by Action Against Hunger in a village, 27% of under-ten-year-olds are affected by diarrhoea and 11.6% suffer from dysentery. 83% of those surveyed said they were affected by waterborne diseases and 81% indicated that they drew water from unprotected water points, with a high risk of contamination. In view of the lack of access to health and education, populations have developed inadequate hygiene practices, causing further deterioration in the situation: "Due to strong superstitious beliefs, it is very hard to tr y and make people change their habits once they've got used to them" says Ram Lama, a local nutrition expert with Action Against Hunger.
The very harsh environment of this mountainous region, the lack of farmland, social and economic opportunities, an unequal caste system, lack of communication and the high price of food and materials coming from outside contribute to this humanitarian crisis.
A humanitarian crisis
All these factors have contributed to a serious crisis which has largely gone unnoticed due to the isolated and less populated geographic location of the affected area.
In February 2006 a survey of 10,000 people carried out by Action Against Hunger in the Mugu and Humla districts revealed that 15.6% of those examined suffered from severe malnutrition. In view of this, and despite the logistical difficulties of intervening in the area, Action Against Hunger decided to launch emergency food programmes. Nearly 1,000 people were admitted for nutrition treatment in December 2006 and benefited from mobile clinics and enriched-food distributions. In addition, Action Against Hunger set up activities such as hygiene promotion, improving and irrigating farmland and setting up greenhouses for growing vegetables, to ensure a more varied diet for the local population. "Awareness about malnutrition is also fundamental, as people know very little about this condition and the basic principles of nutrition; hence, it is necessary to explain to them that they can improve their situation themselves," says Ram Lama. In view of the enormous needs, Action Against Hunger is also trying to mobilise the international community and the Nepalese authorities to get involved.
In November 2006, our teams conducted another brief survey of 1,676 children and 207 breast-feeding or pregnant women towards the end of the year. In total, 19% of children and almost half of all women were affected by severe malnutrition. The situation of the population is clearly not improving, despite better crops and the emergency programmes already in place.
With this in mind, Action Against Hunger intends to step up its operations by putting greater emphasis on the causes of malnutrition, mainly by implementing drinkingwater projects and by supporting local healthcare centres. Action Against Hunger is also continuing to mobilise other humanitarian actors, so that the forgotten populations of Mugu and Humla may benefit from the support which they so desperately need.