Nepal: Building a food bridge to survive the lean times

News and Press Release
Originally published
MAILA, 17 November 2008 (IRIN) - When Richard Ragan, the World Food Programme (WFP) country representative, calls Nepal a "forgotten humanitarian emergency", some of the places he has in mind are the remote mountainous regions in the far and mid-west of the country.

More than 300,000 people in nine districts in the far and mid-west have been facing rapidly deteriorating food security due to crop failures and high food prices, according to WFP.

With local partners, WFP is providing food-for-work schemes in some of these areas to enable local households to repair damage from landslides and crop failures, improve the general infrastructure and provide sustenance during lean times.

In Humla District in the mid-west region, according to Raju Neupane, programme assistant for WFP, the UN food agency has been working on various projects since 2000. The Maila Village Development Committee (VDC) (equivalent to a sub-district), in Humla, with its 4,538 residents, typifies the food and livelihood crisis faced by the region.

In 2008, Maila faced a double whammy of a winter drought that destroyed 40-60 percent of the wheat and barley crop, rain- and hail-storms, combined with numerous landslides, which reduced the millet and rice harvests in July and August by as much as 30 to 50 percent, according to WFP.

Maila residents told IRIN of their desperation: "We don't have sufficient food, our crops were destroyed," Mohan Lal Rithal a 28-year-old farmer said, adding that because of the landslide, "I wasn't able to collect a single grain of rice . Now I go to look for work at neighbouring farms and I go on an empty stomach."

WFP is conducting protracted relief and recovery operations (PRRO) to provide food assistance for 2.7 million people across 31 districts in Nepal. Fifteen of those districts are in the mid-west region. Its implementing partner on the ground in four VDCs, including Maila, is the Development Project Service Center (DEPROSC), a local NGO.

Establishing priorities

"We are very much guided by what the local communities see as their priority needs," said Nabaraj Paudel, working in Maila for DEPROSC.

After the flooding and landslides, the Maila VDC held a meeting to discuss priority infrastructural needs. It concluded that what was most needed was to rebuild a 9.2km mule trail, parts of which had been washed away by landslides.

Improved trails are particularly important to enable safe passage of mule trains and residents to and from distant markets, for farmers to get to their distant plots and for children to travel safely to school. The trek to the nearest market or road can take up to six days. The PRRO schemes in Maila also include the construction of several wooden bridges and an irrigation project.

In total, 739 households are working on the construction schemes under the guidance of DEPROSC, with all the projects to be completed by December 2008. Each family will receive 160kg of rice from WFP for their work - a total of 118.24 metric tonnes, delivered by WFP helicopter to a central distribution point in Maila.

During the lean season - February, March and April - families have traditionally been forced to borrow money and sell their cooking utensils, even their land, to purchase food. Without work, many men go to India for menial jobs, returning with only paltry sums of money.

This year may be different. According to several residents, their small supply of millet and rice will see them through the remainder of the year, and with the WFP rice allotment, they will have enough food to last through most of the lean months.

"From now on, WFP's 160kg of food assistance and our own crops will be sufficient to carry us at least through March," said Ajbir Khatri, a resident of Kolibada settlement, Maila VDC.

An additional benefit, according to Paudel of DEPROSC, is that "thanks to the food assistance, 60 to 65 percent fewer men are going to India for work during the lean months".