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Floods, drought and natural disasters already threatened food security in Nepal, then coronavirus came

Too much rain, and too little rain, hampers farmers and their crops.

Tomatoes growing on a farm in Nepal
Tomatoes growing on a farm in Nepal
Image: Cormac Fitzgerald

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Raj Mahato sat in a clearing at the centre of a group of houses, in the small town of Fulbariya in the south east of Nepal close to the Indian border.

Fulbraiya is an isolated village, a significant distance by unpaved road from the urban centre of Lahan, in Nepal’s Province 2.

Mahato – a farmer and chairperson of the local farmers’ group – was surrounded by fellow family members, friends and townspeople. He spoke through a translator about the issues the community faced.

“In the past there was more rain than now,” Mahato said.

“In recent years there is less rain but in the current year there was heavy rainfall, which also destroys our crops.”

Mahato and his fellow farmers are like many across Province 2 and the rest of Nepal, contending with harsh weather and climate conditions. Changes in monsoon patterns, periods of drought and irregular rainfall causing floods have been an increasing issue in recent years.

Recently, the farmers’ entire potato crop was also destroyed by an usually heavy frost, highlighting the vulnerability of crops and people’s livelihoods to changes in the weather.

IMAGE 1 Raj Mahato worries about the effects of weather on his crops

For Tek Bahadur Rai, another farmer living about 100km away in the municipality of Belaka, in Province 1, unpredictable weather affects his livelihood also.  

Rai spoke about how his farm had problems with irregular rain patterns during monsoon season, when there was flooding, or in drought season, when there was no water. 

“During times when it was too hot we could find some water from some place,” he said. 

“But last year there was a hail storm and nothing can stop a hail storm from destroying vegetation. If it comes, nothing can stop it.” 

Nepal  

Mahato and Rai’s problems reflect some of the main issues facing farmers trying to make a living in the southern areas of Nepal, an area known as the terai. 

Despite its small size (about twice the size of Ireland), Nepal – a landlocked country in South Asia – is a highly diverse country in terms of both its people and its landscape.  

The population of 28 million comes from a wide range of different ethnic groups and social classes. Nepali is the official language, but about 130 other languages are spoken primarily across the country.  

The terai is sub-tropical and mostly flat, with hot summers and usually mild winters. It differs from the green hills and valleys of the country’s middle and the towering icy peaks of the Himalayas in the north. 

20200122070018_IMG_1046_1 Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

Nepal is squeezed in between the giants of India and China and due to the fact that it is landlocked and has no ports of its own, is heavily reliant on land imports and can suffer when borders are closed.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 148th out of 189 with high levels of poverty and associated issues.

Adding to the issues the country faces is the fact that Nepal is located in one of the most seismically active areas in the world leaving it prone to natural disasters.

In 2015 an earthquake ripped through the country, killing nearly 9,000 people, destroying buildings and infrastructure and causing an estimated $9.13 billion (€8 billion) worth of damage.

All of these factors make Nepal uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and increasing worldwide temperatures. According to the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), the country is ranked fourth worldwide in its vulnerability to climate change.

Many Nepalis when asked find the situation ironic: the country is responsible for a miniscule fraction (0.025%) of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, but are one of the countries most likely to suffer from their effects.

Food security and farming

The main concerns over the negative effects of climate change differ from place to place in Nepal. Up north in the Himalayas, warming temperatures are melting the glaciers and increasing the likelihood of disasters.

In the south, irregular weather patterns and the effects on agriculture and with it people’s land, food, health and livelihoods is the focus of people’s concern. Preparation for natural disasters like flooding is also a main point of focus.

About 65% of Nepal’s population are involved in agriculture in some way, with the sector accounting for 35% of the country’s GDP. Despite this, many people suffer from food insecurity and poor nutrition.

20200122075529_IMG_1060 Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

About 27% of Nepali children under the age of five are underweight, while 10% suffer from wasting due to acute malnutrition.

While it is developing nations that will suffer the most from the effects of climate change, vulnerable groups and communities within those nations will be hit the hardest.

In Nepal, this means women (the country ranks 115th out 188 countries for gender equality), lower caste people, landless farmers and smallholders and other vulnerable groups.

It is these groups that are the focus of much of the efforts – by local and international aid agencies and community organisations – to prepare and educate people on the incoming dangers of climate change and to attempt alleviate poverty.

“Climate change and vulnerabilities [are] exacerbating the problems of the more marginalised communities and it has had different scale impacts on livelihoods and food security,” said Thakur Chauhan, food security, livelihood and climate change program coordinator with CARE Nepal, an International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) working in Nepal.

That’s why we are targeting the most marginalised communities with different approaches, not the blanket approach for everyone. Because we know that climate change is affecting them differently.”

Compounding the issues already facing marginalised groups in the terai is the recent Covid 19 pandemic, which has closed borders, derailed economies and threatened livelihoods across the world.

Marginalised

Before the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were being fully felt, TheJournal.ie spent time speaking with a number of farmers and families in the eastern terai about the challenges facing them and the work being done to help.

We followed the work Care Nepal was doing in the districts of Siraha and Udayapur, and talked to government officials, farmers, families and NGO workers.

Care Nepal is an INGO working on a number of projects in the country. Nepal – like many developing nations – receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid every year from a wide range of organisations.

In the fiscal year 2018-19 it received foreign aid to the sum of $1.79 billion (€1.59 billion). INGOs made up about $215 million (€190 million) of this.

Care has as its mission statement:

Empowerment of poor, vulnerable and socially excluded people to fulfil their basic needs and achieve social justice.

TheJournal.ie visited its Samarthya project, which aims to support different organisations in securing the right to food for vulnerable communities across the country.

The initiative – still in its early stages – is funded by Danida – the humanitarian aid wing of Denmark’s government and has multiple partners and stakeholders. It is a follow on from an earlier Right to Food project which had broadly similar goals.

Care’s role is one of funding as well as oversight and providing technical assistance, with the on-the-ground implementation of the project being done by Nepalese community organisations. 

Much of the focus of the project is on implementing “climate smart” techniques and technologies into traditional farming practices which will make them more resilient and able to withstand the effects of climate change.

Right to Food

The project also aims to empower and educate groups to advocate towards realising the right to food for vulnerable communities.

The Nepali government has a goal of “zero hunger” by 2025 and in 2018 brought the Right to Food and Food Sovereignty Act into force.

However, major issues persist around how this goal can be realised. While larger work is being done at national governmental level to advocate for increased support, Care and its partners also work at a local level to educate and attempt to empower farmers.

“Most of the places still don’t have the knowledge, they use traditional farming methods,” said Kiran Acharya, nutrition and livelihood officer for the National Farmers’ Group Federation, one of Care’s partners.

“After this kind of project came and people became aware about this, people know about this and then they are slowly adapting this kind of technology.”

Seeds and irrigation

For many groups, this means diversifying their crops or using different types of seeds. Many areas in the lowland terai are at risk of drought, with delayed or erratic monsoon responsible for destroying harvests or significantly reducing yields.

For Raj Mahato and his farmer’s group in Fulbraiya, switching from a local seed variety for rice to a more drought resistant one significantly improved their rice production.

“Before the organisation came here, [we] didn’t know about this type of drought resistant varieties… of [rice]. [We] used local varieties which gave low production,” he said.

However, in 2015, after the intervention of Care and its partners, the farmer’s group started using a new variety of rice seed which is resistant to drought. Since then, yields have improved and the other farmers’ groups have switched to the seeds.

“Most of the farmers are producing more rice and they sell surplus amounts and get benefits with this,” he said.

For Tek Rai in Belaka, a solar-powered irrigation system allows him to draw water from the ground in times of drought in order to water his crops. 

IMAGE 3

Other farming techniques, including using plastic tunnels to protect crops, creating plastic fish ponds to farm fish (which can be sold or eaten as a vital source of protein), or the use of biofertilizer to reduce dependency on imported chemical fertilizers have all had positive effects of people’s livelihoods. 

Care hopes to spread this learning and support across the country in the coming years.

Women farmers

The effects of climate change vary widely by region, and the impact it has also depends on social class or caste, gender and location.  

Climate change has a more negative effect on women and in Nepal increasing numbers of women are heading up households and working more on agriculture as men travel abroad to find work.  

For many Nepalese, the caste system – the Hindu-based system by which people are categorised according to high and low castes – defines their position in society. While discrimination based on caste was made illegal in 1962, it still exists in many forms in Nepalese society. 

Dalit – or untouchables – represent the lowest caste in Nepalese society. Close to half of the population of dalit in the terai are landless, and children from dalit communities are generally less eduacted and have worse education outcomes.  

Of the Dalit communities the Musahar (which means “rat eater”) are among the most marignalised. One study showed Musahar people have the lowest rate of literacy among all castes and are mostly landless.  

In one area of the terai, Bhagwanpur, a group of Musahar women formed the Dalit Women’s Farner’s Group in 2015, to engage in what’s known as “contract farming”. 

Due to levels of emigration, large swathes of cultivable land Nepal are left fallow, while many people have no land to work on.  

With the support of Care and its partners, the women lease out the farm belonging to an absentee landlord and grow crops which they can then feed themselves with and sell on any surplus.  

The farm provides them with a source of food and income, as well as increasing their participation in society and their ability to advocate on their own behalf. It is a system Care wants to expand across the country. 

In Belaka, a separate group of Dalit women have also begun contract farming on a patch of land. Speaking through a translator, the women – Anita Sada, Samita and Kalawati – took turns describing life before they began working on the farm: 

“Before, we didn’t have enough clothing, even if we were cold we would only have one or two maximum layers of clothing [in the past].” 

Work was scarce, and feeding their children was a struggle.  

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“There were many times when we had to go and ask other people for food. It was normal for us to go around asking others for food.”

20200121060807_IMG_0949 Anita Sada, Samita and Kalawati hope contract farming will bring a better livelihood for them and their families

Without properly diversified food, families would eat millet or rice and little else, the women said. With the assistance of the NFGF and Care and another partner group LiBird, the women began farming and growing crops, which they said benefits their livelihoods.  

The women worry still about the future and the effect the climate could have on their livelihood. 

“When we first planted our first lot of vegetation, there was too much rainfall and it destroyed the vegetation. 

“Our fear is that we saw it happen once… we’re worried that it might happen in the [future]. 

“The weather pattern is unreliable. We’re worried it might destroy vegetation in the future.” 

Diversifying 

Local government officials and NGOs like Care hope to educate and incentivise the taking up by farmers of these techniques, with the aim of preparing vulnerable communities to be better able to handle the negative effects of climate change. 

Efforts are being made to strengthen civil society organisations within the country and humanitarian officials point to the recent Right to Food Act as a positive development.  

However, Amnesty International points out that the law needs to be amended in order for it to be actually effective. 

“If the government of Nepal wants to ensure that no one goes hungry in the country, it must strengthen the law. The mechanisms such as the rules and regulations need to be crafted in a way that makes the right to food a reality for all,” Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director with Amnesty International, said last year. 

Aside from this the country faces problems with corruption which interferes with people’s livelihoods. 

According to Transparency International – a global anti-corruption watchdog – Nepal ranked 113th out of 180 countries in terms of corruption last year, with a score of 34. 

Even with that score there was some room for optimism, with the country jumping up 11 places on its 2018 position and TI acknowledging that things are improving in the country. 

Care – which is strictly non-political and does not comment on political affairs in the country – provided €5 million in aid to the country last year from different streams. 

From its perspective, the money it provides in Nepal is subject to strict oversight and monitoring. Richa Uprety of Care states that the charity has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to the misuse of any funds or grants provided through its partnerships. 

“We brief the partners before we get into the partnership about this but there are periodic monitoring done of the partner organisations, periodic monitoring of the documents – the books that are kept by the partners to see if there’s any potential threats or frauds or corruption going on,” she said. 

“So in case we find anything the partnership is immediately terminated. This goes far beyond the financial part of it. We have zero tolerance against any kind of harassment as well.” 

Coronavirus

Compounding the issues of Nepal’s farmers and moving towards more climate resilient farming practices and increased food security is the Covid 19 worldwide pandemic. 

Up until recently, Nepal had recorded relatively few coronavirus cases and deaths, but this ramped up over the past month. As of this week Nepal had recorded close to 18,000 cases but just 40 deaths. 

It also lifted its nationwide lockdown this week, but with the closing of its borders and the shuttering of the economy earlier this year, Nepal, like many countries around the world, is facing into an economic slump.

In March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that protectionist measures could lead to food shortages around the world. Nepal, with its heavy reliance on imports from India, could suffer particularly.  

There are also fears within the country that the global recession caused by the pandemic will affect the amount of foreign aid the country receives.  

In a more direct sense, Nepal went into lockdown in March and Care Nepal said that field level implementation had come to a complete halt.  

The INGO is currently focusing on distributing relief items like hygiene kits and food items to vulnerable groups and to raise awareness about the virus. 

As the virus recedes and countries reopen, focus will shift back to preparing communities for the issues coming down the line. 

Massive flooding in recent days in Nepal and nearby Assam in India which has displaced millions and killed close to 200 people is another stark example of the problems facing the most vulnerable in the country.  

With natural disasters like this likely to become more frequent, initiatives to educate, prepare and support Nepal’s most vulnerable communities will be of vital importance. 

“If we’re talking at the community level, the major area where people are lacking is in terms of awareness. Awareness is something that needs to be increased,” said Rahamat Hussain, regional official with Care, speaking through a translator. 

20200123080444_IMG_0008_1 Rahamat Hussain

“They might have some basic idea, especially with projects and what we do we teach them and we deliver it. But to actually understand the context behind it I think there needs to be additional awareness activities. 

“For people to truly internalise the situation in the coming years. For that the government also needs to have a similar approach in the sense that they themselves also need to understand the kind of impacts that they will be facing in the coming years and how fast that change will come about.” 

This article is the first in a series focusing on the impact of climate change on people in Nepal. It is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 

simon cumbers

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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