Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal

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For families living in Nepal’s remote highland regions, chronic food insecurity and hunger are part of daily life. Their own agricultural production is low
  Oxfam Case Study Improving Food Security for Vulnerable ommunities in Nepal This case study describes the struggle faced by poor communities in highland Nepal to produce and buy sufficient food. It explores how Oxfam is working with local organizations to provide sustainable long-term and short-term responses to the problems of food insecurity and climate change in the region.    ‘Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal’, Oxfam case study, June 2011 2 INTRODUCTION Nepal is one of the world’s poorest nations, with 31 per cent of its 28 million-population living below the poverty line. Chronic food insecurity and hunger are part of daily life for millions of Nepalis. For families living in Nepal’s remote mountain regions in particular, getting access to sufficient food is a daily struggle. Climate change is making the situation worse. This case study explores the reasons why Nepal is so vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger, and describes what Oxfam is doing to help improve food security for women and men living in remote parts of highland Nepal.   WHY IS NEPAL SO VULNERABLE TO FOOD INSECURITY? More than half of the population of Nepal lives in remote hill and mountain regions. Agricultural development in these areas has been neglected for years, and food production fails to meet the needs of the population. Low production is compounded by climate insecurity. Consecutive winter droughts combined with a poor monsoon in 2009 left around 3.4 million people in need of food aid. People living in many parts of the country are reliant on expensive food imported from India. Research undertaken during the 2008–2009 food price crisis showed that the poorest rural families were spending 78 per cent of their income on food (United Nations World Food Programme and Nepal Development Research Institute 2008), making them highly vulnerable to food price volatility.   When food prices go up, households are forced to sell assets, to make cuts in the household budget, and to take on debts – forcing them into a vicious circle of deepening poverty. Relying on imported food Since the 1990s Nepal has been reliant on food imported from India to feed its growing population. Imported food is more expensive than food produced locally, because of transport costs. In October 2007, India placed a ban on the export of the non-basmati rice that was being imported and sold to poor people in Nepal. This export ban drove food prices up even higher. Between March 2008 and March 2009, food prices rose by 17.1 per cent in Nepal ( United Nations World Food Programme 2009). In response, the World Food Programme (WFP) started distributing food to an estimated 23 per cent of the population in the most affected areas, and the government-run National Food Corporation (NFC) transported rice to 30 districts at subsidized prices. Missing men Households in the highlands of Nepal cannot rely on food production alone. In these regions, 75 per cent of families have at least one male family member who migrates – usually to India – for work to support the family income. These men may be gone for as much as 11 months per year, working as guards, servants, or in restaurants. While the men are away, women and children struggle to cope by eating less, consuming their stocks of seeds, selling livestock and other assets, undertaking wage labour, borrowing from moneylenders, and buying on credit with traders,    ‘Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal’, Oxfam case study, June 2011 3 incurring large debts. In many cases, the money that the men bring back is barely enough to pay these debts. Climate change The people of highland Nepal are feeling the effects of unpredictable weather patterns. In the summer of 2008 they ploughed their fields, planted their seeds and the monsoon rains came on time, resulting in good local harvests, and a bumper rice harvest in the Terai plains. The following winter they ploughed their fields, planted their seeds, and the rain did not arrive, resulting in one of the worst droughts on record. A chronic food crisis developed leaving more than 3.4 million people in these regions in urgent need of food. Increasingly unpredictable rains are likely under climate change scenarios. BUILDING FOOD SECURITY IN NEPAL Distributing food to remote mountainous communities is expensive. WFP and the National Food Corporation (NFC) buy rice in the Terai District – Nepal’s flat paddy farming plains – and transport it to the hill and mountain areas. The villages that are most in need of food assistance are remote and isolated. The only way to reach these communities with food is by helicopter, tractor, mules and porters, making the transport costs twice as expensive as the cost of the rice. Given rising global food prices and less predictable rain patterns, these responses are becoming increasingly expensive and unsustainable. In contrast, Oxfam’s food security programme aims to tackle the root causes of Nepal’s food shortages by linking emergency food relief with longer-term food security initiatives that focus on improving farm productivity and income generation. Oxfam is working with local partners to help 37,500 people (6,250 families) in 15 remote and isolated communities in the Dadeldhura and Dailekh districts of the Far- and Mid-Western regions (the two poorest regions in Nepal). Oxfam’s long-term aim is to help these communities become more self-sufficient and less dependent on food aid. Oxfam also hopes that the success of this programme will convince others to adopt programmes designed to tackle the root causes of food insecurity, so that unsustainable food support can be gradually reduced. Box 1: Oxfam’s food security programme activities at a glance - Support for the creation, management, and maintenance of micro-irrigation schemes, to increase farm productivity. - Support for the creation, management, and maintenance of community seed and grain banks. - The promotion of improved seed varieties - Cash-for-work schemes to build infrastructure that will support improved food security, such as micro-irrigation systems and seed/grain banks. - Training communities (especially women) on new farming techniques and trial new crop varieties. - Distributing tools and improved drought-resistant seeds. - ‘Participatory learning’ classes to support the development of women’s knowledge and leadership skills. - Building market linkages between communities and traders.    ‘Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal’, Oxfam case study, June 2011 4 Food distribution schemes with a difference During the ‘hungry’ months of 2010 (February–March and July–August), Oxfam distributed food through a voucher system to help the most vulnerable people, women in particular. Oxfam’s food voucher scheme differed to that of WFP and NFC because Oxfam was working with local shopkeepers to supply food to the poorest families in each target community. The families were selected by the communities themselves and given the choice of what foods to buy, and when and where to buy them. Oxfam distributed 1000-rupee vouchers to the most vulnerable 25 per cent of households in each target village. That’s enough to buy one month’s supply of food for a family of six to eight people. The vouchers were used to pay for food in local shops. Oxfam then paid the shopkeepers the value of the vouchers. By giving the communities and recipients greater control and choices than would be usual in a standard food distribution programme, Oxfam aimed to make the experience of receiving food aid more empowering for individual recipients and for communities. By working with local traders and shopkeepers, the programme supported local businesses rather than undermining them. Bhagirathi Gurung, a community-based mobiliser, describes how recipients were selected: ‘The areas that I work in are extremely remote. The communities are Dalit families [from the ‘untouchable’ caste] and they are very, very poor. As part of this project we have to select the most vulnerable 25 per cent from each community… It is really very difficult because they are all poor and they are all vulnerable. Everybody has a small piece of land, so we calculate how much each household is able to produce. We also take into consideration whether they are able to earn money by doing other work. … Many of the people selected are single women, disabled people, and those caring for disabled people. After the most vulnerable are selected we let them decide which food they need the most. The options we give them are rice, wheat, oil or lentils. Almost all of them chose rice because right now wheat is more expensive to buy, oil they can get from ghee, and rice lasts longer.’ Tirtha Raj Chataut, is the owner of a local general store that participated in the Oxfam distributions: ‘It’s different from the WFP distribution system because the WFP does not buy rice from local traders. This voucher system is better because it is enhancing the income of local traders and that is really important. Usually, on a good day, I would sell around 40 sacks of rice, and today it’s 70. But for me, it is also important to be able to help my community… Because we are bringing such large quantities of food here, I can pay local people to unload the trucks. Today I employed five people from the local area.’ On the day of the distribution, Radha Joshi was considering what to buy with her voucher: ‘I am going to buy rice with my voucher. If I am careful and only have rice once a day, or mix it with wheat flour, it will feed my family for a month. There are four of us in our family – my husband, my two sons and myself. My husband is not at home at the moment because he has very bad asthma and had to go to hospital. I had to borrow money and sell my land in order to raise enough money to pay for the hospital and the medicine. … When the rice runs out we will have to sell our goats or borrow money to buy more food.’
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