South Asia News
Never-ending food scarcity in Nepal's mountains
By Pratibha Tuladhar Apr 29, 2011, 3:05 GMT
Dunai, Nepal - Dhnakumari Dangi and her family will probably have to wait another six months before they can get enough to eat.
Dangi lives in Jhuphal village in Dolpa, one of Nepal's poorest districts, at an altitude of 2,987 metres on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
The area is ranked one of the worst in the world for food security by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), due to its inaccessibility and the harsh terrain.
The lean season has just begun in Dolpa, where the arid, windswept land only yields one harvest a year, producing enough food for three to six months.
Government figures say food deficit has tripled in recent years, with most of the increase since a 2009 drought.
'What we grow lasts us less than six months,' explains Dangi as her 12-year-old son ploughs the field behind her to plant millet. 'We buy rice from the Food Corporation and work for the World Food Programme as labourers in exchange for rice.'
The WFP pays each family 4 kilograms of rice per day of labour, for digging roads or irrigation canals. But these projects don't run all year around.
Food has been scarce as long as Dangi can remember, but has been getting worse recently as snow is falling until later in the year, and the rains during growing season are less abundant.
'Rainfall and snowfall patterns in the areas has been changing over the years, worsening the food production scenario,' agriculture extension officer Hemraj Adhikari says.
The rains that do arrive with the June monsoons are a mixed blessing.
They water the region's meagre crops during the growing season, but make access more difficult for delivery of food while the people wait for harvest time.
Access is only by air, or by a four-day walk to the nearest useable road.
The rains reduce the footpaths to mud, unusable by people or the mules they use to deliver goods. And the downpours often prevent aircraft from landing at the area's small airstrips.
This often halts the deliveries by the government-run food corporation.
The region mostly depends on traditional crops called kodo and chinu, which are minor millet varieties. However, food preferences have been changing over the years.
Padam Kumari brews millet wine to sell in the local market, so that she can buy rice with the money. A kilogram of subsidized rice costs her 58 Nepalese rupees (0.7 US dollar), a not inconsiderable sum.
'My grandchildren prefer rice, so we try to buy some for them, even if we can't afford it' she says.
For the past decade, government has flown rice to the region, weather permitting, a move criticized by experts who say it increases the people's dependency on handouts.
'We're trying to work with the FAO (the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization) to help people improve their cultivation techniques, while also helping them cope with climate change,' says Adhikari.
The WFP says it is 21 million dollars short of the budget needed to work in the 22 districts in the region.
'Maybe we can only reach a quarter of our beneficiaries next year,' said Nicole Menage, the organization's country representative. 'We are also affected by food prices and the transportation is very expensive.'
'We feel there is a risk that some will go hungry as we do not have the budget.'
The poverty in the region also means low literacy. Children walk hours to fetch drinking water, instead of going to school. Life expectancy is just 44 years. Almost all children under the age of five are malnourished, and around 7 per cent are stunted, according to the WFP.
Dangi understands little of weather patterns or programme budgets. But her ambitions for future generations are clear: 'Our wish is that our children could have food and education - a dream of all Dolpalis.'
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