Nepal faces looming food crisis after natural disasters hit farmers

Earthquakes and monsoons have devastated the country’s agricultural sector, which employs a third of the population

KABHRE REGION, Nepal — Arjun Parajuli, a 67-year-old farmer from Kabhre, in northeastern Nepal, just survived one of the most challenging monsoons of his life. After working as a cycle rickshaw driver for 50 years in Kathmandu, earlier this year he poured his life savings into his family farm. A day later, everything was gone. The monsoons washed it all away. “Most people in my village lost their homes, storage and irrigation systems,” he said.

The monsoon season in Nepal typically lasts from June to September, and this year it came after a devastating earthquake and several aftershocks in April killed more than 8,000 people and destroyed thousands of farms in the eastern part of the country. More than a third of Nepal’s population works in the agricultural sector, and before the rains, “a lot of farmers on the top of the hills abandoned their farms,” Parajuli said. In the wake of these disasters, the country has faced a looming food crisis as farmers have struggled to get back on their feet.

In a sense, Parajuli was one of the lucky ones: After the earthquakes, Nepalese residents were entitled to $150 in assistance, and Parajuli collected his money and used it to build a temporary shelter for his family. However, he estimates the damage to his farm totaled about $15,000. “The government promised to give all farmers enough money to build new homes. But I don’t think that will happen. I don’t have 50 more years to save money,” he said. Applying for the money required a significant amount of paperwork, which meant that many farmers from lower castes or with limited literacy skills were excluded.

I need to reconstruct my house before the winter comes. But when I spend all my days trying to rebuild my house, I simply don’t have enough time or energy to work in my fields.

Thulimaya Tamang, farmer

Between the earthquakes and the monsoons, over the last four months agricultural production has decreased dramatically. Somsak Pipoppinyo, Nepal’s representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, believes Nepal might be on the verge of a crisis. “We estimate around 500,000 people in Nepal to be [experiencing] severe food insecurity,” he said. According to statistics recently released by Nepal’s national Rastra Bank, rice and paddy imports jumped 43.4 percent from August 2014 to August of this year, and since the earthquakes, the government and aid organizations have been distributing staple foods such as rice and lentils.

Though an effort has been made to replenish staple crops, experts predict that other agricultural activities will be limited this year. According to Eva Weiner, a consultant at Kaule Environment, an agricultural nonprofit operating in the Nuwakot district, “Most farmers don’t have the resources to invest time and money into the cash crops such as strawberries, tomatoes or radish, which are much more lucrative than staples like rice and maize. Families will take a big financial cut from that.”

Nepal, earthquakes, Nuwakot

A damaged structure on Thulimaya Tamang’s land.
Didem Tali

Thulimaya Tamang, who lost her home in the earthquakes, is among the many farmers who won’t be able to grow a cash crop this year. Growing strawberries is one of her most profitable activities. Unlike rice and maize, which sell for much less, strawberries can be sold for about $3 a kilo. Furthermore, although her maize is ready to gather, she and her husband don’t have time to harvest it. They’re busy fixing their house, which was severely damaged by the earthquakes.

“I need to reconstruct my house before the winter comes. But when I spend all my days trying to rebuild my house, I simply don’t have enough time or energy to work in my fields,” she said.

Every year in rural Nepal, thousands of young men leave their villages to look for jobs, and Tamang says the disasters have accelerated this trend. “All young men have migrated to cities or abroad. We don’t have enough young men left to help us rebuild our houses. The prices of building materials are also so much more expensive now,” she said.

There are few opportunities for those who stay. Sarita Pariyar, from the central district of Nuwakot, is a landless Dalit farmer who hasn’t been employed since the disasters. A single mother, she normally makes most of her income during the summer, when the majority of agricultural activity takes place in Nepal. “People don’t have money to hire wage laborers in their farms now. I haven’t worked in months,” she said. She still lives in her house, which has not been repaired since the earthquakes.

A need assessment study conducted in June by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that $23.4 million was urgently needed to help about 220,000 affected households in Nepal resume their regular agricultural activities. The majority of the 1 million people in these households are women and children, and the estimate includes the cost of seeds, fertilizer, animal feed supplies and warning systems for landslides, among other things. This is a significant amount in a country where the per capita GDP is $694. With the added burden of political insecurity after the recent resignation of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, the Himalayan nation may be facing a long road ahead. “Without an agricultural recovery and revival,” said Pipoppinyo, “Nepal won’t fully recover.”

Source: Al-Jazeera. Date: October 8, 2015

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/8/nepals-farmers-struggle-after-natural-disasters.html