May 1, 2015

Earthquakes and Food Insecurity in Nepal

Claire Fitch

Claire Fitch

Program Officer, Food System Policy Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Pokhara Pame, Nepal, 2013.

Pokhara Pame, Nepal, 2013.

Nepal is heavy on our minds. The earthquake, aftershocks, and avalanches that have ravaged parts of the country since Saturday have led to food and water shortages, displacement, and the potential for disease outbreak. As many have noted, the infrastructure in Nepal was ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale, as half the population lacked access to improved sanitation before these events and poor roads disconnected many remote villages from back-up sources of food and water.

The Nepali Government has predicted that the final death toll will reach at least 10,000, as the epicenter of the earthquake was actually 80 kilometers from Kathmandu and effected remote villages that are just beginning to receive help. The reports are dire: in the Langtang and Ghorka regions, entire villages are said to be leveled while survivors wait for helicopters to bring food and water and evacuate those in need of medical assistance.

The United Nations World Food Programme has estimated that about 1.4 million Nepalis are facing a food shortage and will need emergency food aid for at least the next three months, which is estimated to cost $116 million. In a country where 4.5 million are already considered undernourished and nearly a quarter of the population is food insecure, this increased need for food assistance further stresses the relief organizations and systems already in place.

Hiletaxar, Nepal, 2011.

Hiletaxar, Nepal, 2011.

As a U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Nepal this past summer and fall, I studied the pathways from small-scale agricultural production to nutritional outcomes. I conducted qualitative interviews with agriculture and nutrition researchers about the barriers to collaboration between the two fields, and I analyzed nationally representative data from an observational study on the association between agricultural diversity and women’s dietary diversity. I know from my research and from talking with others that local infrastructure—particularly having access to markets and food storage facilities—can have an impact on farmers’ abilities to feed their local communities and provide food reserves for Nepal during shortages.

While I absolutely hope that emergency food aid can meet the current need and assist Nepal in what will be a long road to recovery, I also hope that long-term aid efforts focus on rebuilding and strengthening Nepal’s infrastructure so that smallholder farmers—those that rely mainly on family labor—can meet their country’s needs. The success of smallholder farms is vital to establishing and maintaining food security, as they produce about 70 percent of the global food supply. They can also provide community resilience, promote sustainable practices, and preserve traditional crop and animal breeds.

The economic situation in Nepal is bleak, and a natural disaster of this scale almost seems insurmountable when we only hear about the amount of help and resources that are needed. But let’s not think of this as a hopeless situation, or of Nepal as a desperate country—I was overwhelmed by the capacity, resilience, and generosity of the Nepali people, and I know everyone in the Johns Hopkins community who has had the pleasure of working in Nepal feels the same way. Sending relief to Nepal now is an investment that could pave the road to the increased capacity of smallholder farmers to sustainably feed Nepal’s population in the future.

Images: Pokhara Pame, Nepal, by Wolkenkratzer, 2013, wikimedia commons. Hiletaxar, Nepal, by Bishwo Ghimire, 2011, wikimedia commons.

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