Nepal: Cold And Hungry At The Roof-Of-The-World

In Nepal,  still reeling from a devastating earthquake in April 2015, a dispute over the contents of the country’s new constitution has caused a months long closure of border points with India. 

This story explores how it is the poor and vulnerable, especially those affected by the earthquake, that are bearing the brunt of this crisis – and what the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is doing to help. 

Winter is coming

As snow begins to fall in the Himalayas, life has now become a desperate struggle for many in the most far flung and quake-affected parts of Nepal. 

The closure of the southern border with India since September has now entered its fourth month and shortages of food and other essential supplies have caused worrying inflation in the heavily import dependent country. The dispute is exacerbating the day-to-day struggles of those who are trying to rebuild after the quake, and it is those in the most isolated parts of the country that are faring the worst. 


Photo: WFP/Seetashma Thapa

Markets are inaccessible 

Sangita Limbu and her husband Shyam Gurung epitomize the situation that many in their country now face. They once ran a small but thriving guest house in Sirdibas, in Gorkha District, where WFP has so far provided emergency food assistance to 13,000 quake affected households. “We used to earn around 800,000 Nepali Rupees (US$ 800) from tourists per year,” says Limbu. “This year we have nothing.”

“The trail to the main market is completely damaged and is very dangerous to traverse.”

Their isolation is typical in mountainous Nepal, where much of the population lives above 3,000 metres. Before the earthquake, their village was a bustling stopover en route to Mount Manaslu. However in recent months only five tourists have spent the night. Because the quake damaged access paths, the village has been all but cut off from the nearest market and supplies.  “The trail to the main market is completely damaged and is very dangerous to traverse,” says Limbu. “But we are left with no choice but to tread this dangerous path to purchase basic commodities in order to survive.” 

 

Photo: WFP/Samir Jung Thapa

How WFP is responding

Limbu and her husband are two of the 3,000 people in Sirdibas who receive food assistance from WFP in exchange for helping to rebuild community assets, such as mountain trails, clinics and community centres that were destroyed by the earthquake. Limbu says she is grateful. “In exchange for the work we do, we get food,” she says. 

The protests at the border are making this kind of scheme even more vital for many in Nepal, where a quarter of people live on less than US$1.25 a day, and even before the earthquake, on average people spent more than 60 percent of their income on food. There are now 400,000 people across the country involved in similar community asset creation programmes. “We have no income because of the quake and we simply cannot afford food at the current high prices,” says Limbu’s husband Gurung. “WFP is helping us put food on the table for our families.”

 

Photo: WFP/Seetashma Thapa

Food prices are rising

While on average the border closure has caused food prices to increase by more than 30 percent across Nepal in the last few months, in the most remote communities, prices for some commodities have more than doubled. A 25 kg sack of rice now costs 5,000 Nepali Rupees (US$46.80) in Sirdibus - up from 2,500 Rupees (US$23.40) before September. Many in this village have had their homes reduced to rubble. Winter is the new enemy. It is now eight months since the earthquake, and many in Sirdibas, including children and the elderly still live under tarpaulins. Cold killed seven people across Nepal in the first few weeks of December.   

Photo: WFP/Seetashma Thapa 

“Without any source of income it is very difficult to buy food at such high prices to feed my family of five,” says Meena Gurung, also receiving WFP food assistance in Sirdibas village. “Since the price of food has increased so much, we face a dilemma. Should we use our savings to rebuild our homes to protect ourselves from the snow or buy food to fill our stomachs? Without the WFP food we would be in even more serious trouble.”
“The earthquake damaged our homes, health posts, schools and mountain trails. The food crisis is taking what we have left,” she says.

Photo: WFP/Seetashma Thapa

Earlier this month, WFP warned that if trade remains restricted and food prices continue to rise, a serious humanitarian crisis is likely. It also warned that the fuel shortage caused by the closing of border points was hampering earthquake relief efforts and had already caused significant delays in the delivery of food, shelter, medicine and other humanitarian items.