KATHMANDU, 21 March 2013 (IRIN) - Development assistance on its own will not resolve chronic levels of food insecurity in Nepal's western Karnali Zone, described by many as a "silent emergency". Rather, a more measured and integrated approach is required in some areas, including relief, say experts and government officials.
"We can't just stop relief all at once. There are still thousands of people in the Karnali that still need some form of relief assistance at least in the short-term," Jagannath Adhikari, an agricultural scientist and author of the book Food Crisis in the Karnali, told IRIN.
Of the 400,000 people in Karnali, one of Nepal's 14 zones and comprising five districts (Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Kalikot and Dolpa), about one third of the population is severely food insecure, while half are moderately food insecure, Adhikari said.
"Development is the goal. However, in certain areas, some component of relief is still needed," said Hem Raj Regmi, undersecretary of Nepal's Ministry of Agricultural Development. "We're keen to receive more development assistance. At the same time, however, we can't ignore these ongoing needs."
The authorities have long stated their preference for development assistance over relief, citing its predictability and sustainability. In recent years, Nepal has increased its own development spending in the agricultural sector from US$9.4 million in 2005 to almost $13 million in 2011 - a figure expected to double in 2013, according to government data.
Many believe that unless livelihoods in general are improved, food security in Karnali can never be boosted.
More than 42 percent of Karnali residents live below the poverty line, almost double the national average (25.16 percent), while all five districts rank among the lowest in the Human Development Index (HDI), with average scores of 0.35 - lower than Ethiopia and the Central African Republic.
At the same time, more than 60 percent of Karnali children under the age of five are stunted (low height for age), which is a measure of chronic under-nutrition, against a national average of 41 percent.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the region is the poorest and most food insecure in Nepal, with food production sufficient for only 3-6 months of the year. Except for Jumla District, irrigation is non-existent and there are pockets of the zone where food insecurity is running at 40 percent compared to a national average of 15 percent.
"Development is definitely the way forward, but we're faced with a chronic situation that is not going away, with seasonal food insecurity reaching emergency levels year after year," Nicolas Oberlin, WFP deputy country director for Nepal, explained.
He suggested that cash or food transfers might enable people to participate fully in development and put a break on outmigration.
"The answer transcends the traditional debate between emergency and development.A strong safety net component - a form of relief if you will - is required to accompany and protect development interventions, and to help achieve development objectives."
Karnali Zone - 14.5 percent of the country's land area - is home to just 1.3 percent of the population. Average population density is 14.5 people per square kilometre, against 157.3 for the country as a whole, according to 2012 government figures. Many communities are reachable only on foot, with journeys taking days in some cases.
Without roads, high transportation costs prohibit market development, according to WFP. While efforts to improve road access to the area continue, local livelihoods are limited, fuelling migration, something that further undermines food security.
That said, migration to India and other parts of Nepal has allowed many Karnali residents to cope with transitory as well as chronic food insecurity over the years.
Rice grown in the Terai, Nepal's southern agricultural heartland, is often unaffordable due to transportation costs.
According to recent market indicators, a kilo of coarse rice which costs the equivalent of 41 US cents in Kathmandu, can cost three times that amount in mountain markets of Dolpa District without road access.
This is despite years of development expenditure in the area by the government, much of it going on rice subsidies through the Nepal Food Cooperation.
Many argue the government's decades-long rice subsidy programme has badly shaken the production of local indigenous foods that grow well in the area such as `kaguno', barley, buckwheat, beans and finger millet, while also creating dependency on outside assistance.
They say rice subsidies should be reduced and then stopped and replaced with incentives and activities to cultivate local crops. The subsidies have undermined the ability of local people to cope with shocks, they say.
"We need to promote those traditional crops [like buckwheat] whose production has been undermined by the distribution of subsidized or free rice," said Bashu Aryal, country programme officer of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development . "Seed intervention is the solution, not the distribution of rice."
With proper support and wide-scale cultivation, many believe such crops could offer real hope of addressing long-term food insecurity in the region.
Drought fuels vulnerability
He conceded, however, that some of the remoter places in Karnali may never be food sufficient, no matter how many interventions are made.
"There is higher production potential in lower altitude areas and this should be encouraged," Aryal said. "There is a need for food assistance in some of these pockets, but not all. The trick now is identifying which ones."
About 45 percent of Karnali lies above 4,500m and is covered by snow most of the year; 47 percent lies between 2,500 and 4,500m, making it unsuitable for large-scale cultivation. It is estimated that only 1 percent of Karnali's is truly arable (against a national average of 16 percent).
According to Adhikari, frequent droughts lead to a decline in local production, weaken vital food reserves and coping mechanisms, and make people more vulnerable to food insecurity.
"Food insecurity in the Karnali is highly volatile and susceptible to shocks. As a result, there may sometimes be people who need emergency food assistance when this happens, but not on a long-term basis," said Marion Michaud, programme manager for the European Union.
"Such assistance, when appropriate, needs to be well designed and targetted to be efficient," she stressed, pointing out that may not be the case with the government's large-scale subsized rice programme.
"There are numerous challenges, including transportation, connectivity and distribution," Michaud said.