Grain drain

Covid, climate and conflict have combined to make hunger more acute in Nepal

PARCHED PRADESH: Desiccated paddy fields in Kalaiya of Bara district on Wednesday. Rice has been planted in only 40% of farms in Madhes Province because of delayed monsoon rains, and wells going dry. Photo: JAYLAL SAH

Nepal’s poverty rate may have gone down, but hunger still stalks the land. 

Here in the southern plains, paddy fields are parched due to a delayed monsoon, wells have gone dry and half-way through the rainy season only 40% of rice fields have been planted. 

The eight districts of Madhes Province produce a quarter of Nepal’s rice, and the projected harvest shortfall this year has led to fears of inflation exacerbated by India’s ban on rice and wheat exports.

Covid, climate change and conflict have created a perfect storm of food insecurity. Record heat waves, droughts and storms have hit the northern hemisphere, and Russia exiting the UN-brokered grain export deal last week  made the global fuel, food and fertiliser situation even more precarious.

Nepal’s carbon emission is negligible and the country is not involved in the Russo-Ukraine war, yet both crises have exacerbated food insecurity. And here in the Tarai, it is the most vulnerable families who are most affected. 

Read also: The Karnali’s hunger emergency, Anita Bhetwal

“Who listens to us small people?” asks Nathuni Yadav in Dhanusa district near the Indian border, gesturing at yellowing seedlings on her cracked and sunbaked paddy patch that should be filled with water this time of year. 

Better-off farmers have diesel pumps, but even these have gone dry because the water table has fallen on both sides of the border. It is not just the late monsoon and deficient rainfall that is to blame, over extraction of ground water and rampant quarrying and denudation of the Chure watershed are  affecting the entire Nepal Tarai.

The northern areas of the district near the East-West Highway can still pump water, but farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture have been badly hit. 

Even border cities like Birganj with a population of 300,000 do not have water as hand pumps go dry, and there are reports of similar shortages in cities across the border in the Indian state of Bihar. The rain when it does fall, comes in brief torrents and not the usual longer light drizzles.

This year’s water crisis in the Tarai did not happen suddenly, there have been signs over previous years. Haphazard infrastructure, disturbance of the watershed and deficient rainfall reduced recharge of ground water, while over-extraction through deep drilling in Bihar and Nepal sucked up the remaining ground water. 

Read also: Nepal needs to plan for plenty and scarcity of water, Nepali Times  

When Ram Baran Yadav went on a state visit to India as president, he had warned Indian leaders including the leaders of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh state that the destruction of the Chure would affect the Indo-Gangetic plains in Nepal and India. 

This was the first time that a Nepali leader had raised this issue at such a high level in India. But neither has the Nepal government stopped stripping the Chure, nor has India curbed deep drilling for water. The Chure is a gigantic sponge that soaks monsoon water into the ground, but the little rain that falls now runs off its denuded slopes and the pumps lift what water is remaining underground. 

The climate crisis is a water crisis, and access to water used to be determined by who bore deep wells for water. But even those with pumps do not have water, and the worst hit are the poorest families like Nathuni Yadav.

Nearly 53% of Nepal’s population now lives in the Tarai, which is also the country’s grain basket. The water crisis will affect food supply, which in turn will increase the push factor for migration. Dhanusha is already the district with the highest rate of out-migration and water scarcity will feed the vicious cycle – lack of food forces people to migrate, and because they migrate there is no one to grow food. 

Bishow Parajuli, who till recently was the World Food Programme (WFP) representative in India, says food insuecurity needs short-, medium-, and long-term interventions.

Read also: Nepal sets ambitious target for food sufficiency, Ramesh Kumar

He says, “We need emergency response, especially to reach food to the most vulnerable populations. In the medium term we have to control food price inflation due to the Ukraine crisis and the Indian ban on exports, and in the longer term Nepal has no option but to re-farm fallow land, expand irrigation and increase agriculture productivity.”

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who addressed the World Food Summit in Rome this week said all the right things about meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to eliminate hunger by 2030.

But at the rate Nepal is going, zero hunger looks unattainable. Even without this year’s crisis, the proportion of children with wasting remained stalled at 12%, with Madhes and Karnali Province showing an even higher proportion of undernourished children at 30%.

The proportion of stunted children has dropped from 57% twenty years ago to 30%, but it is till double the SDG target of 15%.

Read also: The pandemic of hunger

Chandra Kishore


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