Page last updated at 09:05 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 10:05 UK

Food shortages grow in rural Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Achham district, western Nepal

Jamauti Kami
The people of the remote terraces and hills are getting hungrier

Rising food prices and destroyed crop harvests are hitting Nepal very hard.

Although few people if any are starving, many are going hungry and the United Nations says several hundred thousand need urgent food assistance.

Most of the hungry are living in remote parts of the mountainous country, inaccessible by road.

In the village of Sokat in what is known as the Far West, I met a destitute family.

'Not enough to eat'

Jamauti Kami blows onto a fire in the dark kitchen of her mud-built house. She is cooking a meagre lunch for her six children: a bit of rice for the first time in three days, with a leaf vegetable.

Dharma Singh Saud
People can't survive by eating mud
Dharma Singh Saud

Her husband is far away in India, looking for work. He left so there would be more food for the family and to bring money home.

The children were crying this morning, Jamauti said - still hungry from the night before.

"There's not enough to eat," she says starkly, her three-year-old daughter Tara nestled by her legs. That prompts Tara to ask when she can eat.

"Yesterday morning the children shared one roti and in the evening another roti, a leftover," Jamauti said.

"That was all they had. They ate and then slept. I didn't cook for myself because we've only a little flour left, so I'm hungry now."

Once the food is cooked, it doesn't last long. The ravenous children wolf it down.

When the incessant rain finally stops, Jamauti leads me through the crumbling, muddy paths to her tiny terrace of farmland.

In the ever-shifting cloud, she does a bit of weeding and shows me one reason the family are suffering.


"There was no rain so my winter wheat crop was ruined," she says.

Ploughing in Acham district
People have meagre resources to eke out a living

"Later it grew a little but then it was destroyed by hail. I haven't harvested any wheat for two or three years.

She shows me the paddy she is now growing on the same patch.

Some of the blades are yellowish-green and pockmarked, something Jamauti says is caused by a pest spreading a disease.

"I'm afraid it will be ruined too."

In Sokat and much of western Nepal many low-caste people like Jamauti struggle to survive. Children have torn clothes. Some have distended bellies.

The rains beat down, especially at night, and the air cracks to the sound of thunder. Too much rain is as damaging as too little.

The countryside looks lush now - but that is deceptive. This is the hungriest time of year. A long dry spell has just ended and the newly planted crops won't be ready for months.

With centuries of toil, families have still managed to carve out the terraces in these densely populated hills. They have been subdivided many times.

'No control'

So even if the yield is good, home-grown crops will only feed a poor family for one or two months a year.

Family in the village of Sokat
There are many mouths to feed and not enough food to go round

So they must buy food - but at a price.

The nearest roadside village and market is Chaukhutte, a collection of iron shacks more than four hours' walk from Sokat.

Sacks of rice from the plains are unloaded from trucks and into a store room. The people buying it, mostly women, face a long slog back to their villages carrying the heavy, 50kg bags.

It has rocketed in price.

"Last year it cost me 800 or 900 rupees ($13) says one woman, Jhakri Parki, who has come from Sokat with friends.

"Now it's 1,400 rupees ($20). But we have to buy it to save our own lives and our children's lives. We take it on credit. We'll pay after three or four months, when we have the money."

The price of rice has risen by at least 50% in a year; that of cooking oil by 30% in six months.

Shopkeepers like Dharma Singh Saud say they are sorry but they have no control over it.

Sokat village
More and more people in the village are becoming destitute

"Everyone around here is affected," he says. "People with the right connections can get credit or help from their relatives. But others are selling their pots and pans, or jewellery, just to survive. People can't survive by eating mud."

There are many things that push up the food prices. This year India banned most rice exports. China has for months closed the the Nepal-Tibet border, which has undermined supply networks in the high Himalayas.

And like other countries, Nepal recently had to raise diesel and petrol prices sharply.

The scarcity of fuel here is also caused by the oil corporation's massive debts to its supplier. All this increases food prices and makes the poor poorer.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) believes two and a half million Nepalis around the country need immediate food assistance. In certain villages it runs some feeding programmes, including monthly ones to mothers and young babies, extended in conjunction with medical check-ups by doctors.

These have helped reduce malnutrition. But the ruggedness of the terrain means the WFP is constantly having to assess the places of greatest need - laborious and time-consuming work.

The people of these remote terraces and hills are suffering. They are getting hungrier.

India Charting the impact of food price fluctuations around the world


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