KATHMANDU (AlertNet) – Around half a million people in Nepal may face extreme hunger in the coming months, as a lack of funds is forcing the United Nations (U.N.) food agency to cut its operations in South Asia's poorest nation, a World Food Programme (WFP) official warned on Tuesday.
The WFP has been providing food aid since 2006/07 to villages in Nepal’s remote mid-and far-western hills, which can only be reached after more than a week's walk or on expensive helicopters, and was expected to feed about 1.2 million Nepalese this year at a cost of $98.5 million.
But Nicolas Oberlin, WFP's deputy country director, told AlertNet that the agency would only be able to reach 700,000 people due to a shortfall of $44 million, which he attributed to the global financial crisis and donor fatigue.
“In some ways the food security issue in Nepal is a relatively silent and protracted crisis, where those who need assistance are living in very remote and inaccessible areas out of the public eye, and where reversing the trend of food insecurity would also require sustained development efforts,” said Oberlin.
The Himalayan nation is emerging from a decade-long civil war which killed more than 16,000 people, displaced thousands, ravaged infrastructure and slowed development.
Nepal's royalist government and Maoist rebels ended the war in November 2006 by signing a peace accord, but political parties are fighting over the preparation of a new constitution and donor-funded development projects are yet to pick up.
It is now considered one of the poorest countries in the world, where a quarter of its 28 million people live on less than a dollar a day.
Aid workers say villagers in the mid- and far-western regions – where the Maoist insurgency began – grow wheat, millet, barley, buckwheat and local rice varieties, but that can only sustain them for three to six months every year.
WFP assistance provides enough food for around three months only and most families send a member to neighbouring India to work and cope with the rest, or eat less.
“During the agricultural lean periods, households reduce the quantity of food they consume and often skip days without eating,” Oberlin said. “It is also common for parents to remove their children from school to work or find food.”
A lack of food in the area is also resulting in high rates of malnutrition among children under five years old, say health workers, with 70 percent of children estimated to be poorly fed compared with the national average of 50 percent.
“This means that children have physical and often mental stunting resulting in a lifetime of increased health problems and lowered productivity,” Oberlin said, comparing food insecurity levels in the Nepalese region as being similar to those of Ethiopia.