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Hunger looms in remote Nepal hills

Fear of famine as UN cuts back food program

Nepalis in the remote hills gather round the UN helicopter as it unloads rice Nepalis in the remote hills gather round the UN helicopter as it unloads rice
  • Chirendra Satyal, Kathmandu
  • Nepal
  • May 27, 2011
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The announcement by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), that it will have to reduce food supplies to almost one million hungry Nepalese, has everyone in the region worried.

Nepal has been a major area of work for WFP where, it says, 41 percent of people are estimated to be undernourished and 54 percent live on less than US$1.25 per day.

The cut-back was made known on May 18, but yesterday Christina Hobbs, communications officer for WFP in Nepal, explained: “WFP will have to scale down its operations in Nepal from supplying food to a peak of one million people in recent years, down to a few hundred thousand to adjust to reduced donor funding. There are serious concerns that no donor has yet come forward to support WFP's operation in 2012, when US$98.5 million will be required to reach 1.2 million people in need.”

At the end of June, WFP Nepal will end its helicopter service, which currently delivers around 13 percent of food. “We are confident that we can reach all current beneficiaries through other means,” said Hobbs, “utilizing newly established roads and a combination of trucks, tractors, commercial air operators, porters, mules and even yaks.”






Sack on a yak: the animals are invaluable in the hilly terrain



The reduction in World Food Program (WFP) funding is related to both local and global trends. Internationally, funding for food assistance has declined following the international financial crisis. Globally in 2010, WFP received only a little over half of the $6.86 billion it had requested from government donors, the private sector and international financial institutions.

Global food prices are also increasing, which means the agency can only meet the needs of fewer people with the same level of funding.

WFP Nepal provides a productive social safety net in the mid and far western hills and mountains, expecting to reach 700,000 people in 2011. It was targeted to reach 1.2 million people and was expected to cost around US$98.5m. However, WFP Nepal is facing a shortfall of US$44m.

Manindra Malla, who heads Caritas Nepal’s program desk in Kathmandu, said: “We are worried. It is sad that food aid may no longer fly to regions in most need. To prevent deaths, in the short run, countries and NGOs have to try address the shortfall.

Even amid political chaos, Caritas Nepal has been working with other civilian organisations to ensuring that the 'right to food’ features in the upcoming constitution. After that, policy and agriculture programs can be developed towards national food security, and for emergency support for highly `food-insecure’ districts.”

Heera Shrestha, a Nepali and parishioner of Assumption Church, who has been working for WFP for more than 20 years, said: “Donors' attention in terms of assistance is shifting away from Nepal to other areas which are more political emergencies, such as the Middle East and North Africa.

[Other countries] are certainly more important for the donor countries compared to Nepal. Nepal's chronic problems of food insecurity or shortages and the high malnutrition rate among children are not new and have existed for decades. Just flying food by helicopters year after year is not a sustainable solution.”

WFP Nepal has had a broad base of donors, which in recent years has included the country's government, the US, EU, UK, Norway, Canada, Australia, Korea and the World Bank, and works in the most inaccessible and food insecure areas. The people most in need live in highly remote areas that are geographically, economically and socially cut off from the world.






Women waiting for food to arrive in the far-western Nepal region



Shrestra commented: “For more than 40 years, WFP, in collaboration with the Nepal government, has been building thousands of kilometers of mule trails and hundreds of kilometers of drivable roads in the mountains using local labor under a 'food-for-work' program.

"The Nepal government’s food corporation is supplying a very limited quantity of food (around six percent of the total requirement in the region) to these remote regions, for sale at subsidized rates. But to really tackle such recurring problems, the government has to work on a national scale and develop roads urgently, maybe with help from friendly neighbors [such as] China and India and other countries. How can the world just allow a situation to continue where around half of all Nepalese children under five suffer from stunting due to malnutrition?”
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