By: Gerard J. Hill
Source: Overseas Development Institute, UK
- Poverty in Nepal has grown both absolutely and relatively, from 33% in 1977 to 42% in 1995/96. Poor communications and low purchasing power are major constraints in the hills and mountains, as is lack of a market in the Terai.
- The present civil war has exacerbated food insecurity and owes much to policy failure and frustration with lack of progress since the 1990 democracy movement.
- The principal groups of poor and food insecure people are subsistence farmers, the low caste, tribal communities, girls and female-headed households. Women, especially pregnant and lactating women, are especially food-insecure. Micronutrient deficiency among children has not improved significantly in the past two decades.
- The Agriculture Perspective Plan (1995-2010) aims to reverse declining food availability. This is growth-focused: poverty reduction is to come from falling food prices, increasing farm incomes and new job opportunities. Implementation has not been pro-poor, and there is no evidence of positive impact to date.
- Policies to improve food access have included fertiliser subsidies, grain procurement and distribution to food deficit areas, but assessments show the benefits went to the better-off.
- The PRSP/10th Plan aims at high, sustainable and broad-based economic growth, social sector and infrastructure development, targeted programmes and good governance, but much is in abeyance because of the suspension of elections.
- The hills and mountains have comparative advantage in high value produce, and the Terai in foodgrains. Some progress has been made to capitalise on this. Transport links are key, but this needs a broader transport systems approach.
- DFID is one of the few donors still supporting agricultural development, especially in helping make the APP more pro-poor. Useful work has addressed poor food quality, micronutrient deficiencies and poor food utilisation (UNICEF, WFP). More needs to be done to build on what DFID, Danida and GTZ have done to channel food to the needy, improve access in remote rural areas and break the remoteness-food insecurity link by improving cross-zonal linkages. The conflict has concentrated government minds and could create an acceptance of the need for meaningful pro-poor change.
- Food security issues in Nepal are bound up with the fact of extreme topographical variation and consequently wide ecological, agricultural and economic diversity and poor connectivity. Customarily, the country is classified into three ecological divisions: mountain (3,000-8,840m above mean sea level), hill (300-3,000m amsl) and Terai (60-300m amsl). In terms of food production potential, the mountain districts are extremely disadvantaged, for three reasons. First, they have 7.3% of the country’s population but only 0.3 %of its arable land. Second, the cold climate lengthens a crop’s growing period, so that, for example, it requires 5-6 months to grow a crop of wheat in the Terai, and around seven months in the hills, but in the mountains 1 References are available at it can take 10-11 months. Third, again because of the cold climate, energy, and therefore food, needs are highest in the mountains. The food availability situation with respect to cereals is shown in Table A7.1. All 16 mountain districts are classified as food-deficit, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that their rugged terrain and lack of transport infrastructure makes it expensive and difficult for food to reach them from outside. The Table also indicates that, although the situation in the hills is not as severe as in the mountains, there are also serious availability problems in these districts, with most of them classified as food-deficit.
|Table A7.1 Cereal production-consumption balance by ecological division (mid 1990s)
||000 MT (%)
|Source: Gill (1996) Table 1.2
- The “People’s Movement” of 1990 led to the establishment of constitutional monarchy and a multi-party parliamentary system in Nepal. Many believe that it was the failure of this system to deliver real change, or to have any impact on widespread poverty and food insecurity, that sparked the Maoist insurrection that began in the mid-western hills in 1996 and rapidly spread until it engulfed most of the country. In response, the government imposed a state of emergency and the population was caught between opposing forces. In a conflict situation it is difficult to arrive at a precise estimate of what is happening to food security, but the following effects are quite widely reported (Gill 2003):
- changes in adult male migration patterns from seasonal to longer term, with resulting increase in the vulnerability of women and children, and reduced food production;
- destruction of bridges by the insurgents and restriction in the movement of people and food by the military greatly hampering the movement of food to deficit areas/households;
- restrictions on movement seriously disrupting traditional livelihood activities such as the collection and sale of non-timber forest products;
- requisitioning of food supplies by the insurgents;
- looting of WFP food stocks disrupting “safety net” schemes such as food-for-work;
- general economic slow-down, including a sharp reduction in tourism, closing down important livelihood opportunities.
- At the time of writing (April 2003) a ceasefire has been declared, and negotiations are ongoing. There are high hopes that resolution of the conflict may finally be achievable.
Trends in food availability
- The agricultural sector dominates Nepal’s economy, producing 41% of GDP and employing more than 80% of the population, but productivity is low. In the early 1960s Nepal had the highest level of agricultural productivity in South Asia, but by the early 1990s, its agricultural productivity was the lowest in the Subcontinent (Tiwary 2002). This happened because Nepal’s agricultural sector has stagnated, while those of neighbouring countries have advanced, in some areas quite rapidly, largely because of the “Green Revolution”. In the Terai, the only food surplus area and the area of greatest agricultural potential, the nutrients available in the soil after deforestation have been steadily mined and have not been adequately replaced, due to shortages of both organic and chemical fertiliser (Gill, 1996). Over the past decade Nepal”s agricultural GDP has grown at a sluggish 2.1%, while population expanded at 2.3%, so that per capita production has been declining. This compares with the previous decade (1981-91), when real growth of agricultural GDP was 3.7%, and that of population 2.1% (FAO forthcoming). In 1975/6 Nepal’s exports of foodgrains were worth Rs5,954 million, but with production failing to keep pace with population growth, exports declined drastically in the 1980s, since when the country has been a net importer of cereals (Koirala and Thapa, 1997).
- The incidence of poverty is high and apparently growing in relative, as well as absolute, terms. The 2001 Human Development Report ranks Nepal as 13th from the bottom of a list 90 developing countries, and almost 38% of the population falls below the “dollar a day” poverty threshold (UNDP 2001). Poverty trends are difficult to estimate because of methodological inconsistencies in surveys conducted at different times, but an exercise designed to compensate for these differences found that the incidence of poverty may have increased over the past twenty years, from 33% in 1977 to 42% in 1995/96 (UNDP 2002a). Lending support to this view, the latest SOFI report shows that the percentage undernourished in Nepal remained constant throughout the 1990s.2 Clearly then, Nepal’s prospects for halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 are not encouraging.
Who are the food insecure?
- Participatory poverty assessments among rural communities across the developing world tend to identify poverty as the most basic cause of food insecurity. In a relatively large-scale study in Nepal, the three most-cited indicators of food security were access to land (taking land quality into account), livestock ownership and having skilled labour (Adhikari and Bohle 1999; WFP 2001). The government’s assessment is that the principal groups of poor people are subsistence farmers, those of “occupational” (i.e. the lowest) castes, dalits (oppressed groups), tribal communities and female-headed households (HMG 2002, Ch. 6). The WFP has sponsored statistical analysis (logistic regression models) of poverty, which have established that the following variables “explain” the poverty and food security status of households: (i) literacy of the household head, (ii) proportion of household members who are able-bodied, (iii) land ownership, (iv) access to irrigation, (v) tenancy status, (vi) ownership of draught animals, (vii) ownership of other animals, (viii) bonded labour households, and (ix) access to improved drinking water (WFP 2001). The same study established that where there was differentiation by caste among communities, members of occupational and disadvantaged castes were commonly included among the most food insecure. When remote areas were compared with accessible ones, the former were regarded as the more food insecure.
- Women, particularly pregnant and lactating women, are particularly susceptible to nutritional insecurity. The women who look after the kitchen are very commonly food-insecure, because they eat only the leftovers, which are in particularly short supply during the hungry seasons of February-March and July-August. In the immediate postpartum period women tend to be better nourished than usual, as they sometimes receive special foods for a period of 3-11 days, depending on household resources. However, other than this, pregnant and lactating women do not receive enough food to cover their additional nutritional needs (ibid). Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA) is by far the most common nutritional problem in Nepal. Women and girls are particularly susceptible to IDA, and the situation has not improved appreciably in the past 15-20 years. In 1998, the overall prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age was 68%, and the rates among pregnant women even higher (UNICEF 2003).
- Children are major victims of food insecurity. More than a third of Nepalese children are born with low birth-weight, i.e. below 2.5 kg, indicating that their nutritional status is already seriously compromised at birth. Low birth-weight is primarily a result of the mother’s poor health and nutritional status, with most pregnant women being malnourished and anaemic. The nutritional status of almost all children, which is poor at birth, actually deteriorates after weaning: half of all young children in Nepal are chronically malnourished, suffering from both low food intake and lack of essential micronutrients in the diet. Inadequate intake of vitamin A, iron, and iodine is particularly widespread and damaging. If these deficiencies persist to age two (and they normally do) the child’s growth and development are irrevocably compromised. Moreover, despite improvements in health care, the situation with respect to micronutrient deficiency among children has not improved much in the past two decades (UNICEF 2003). Among pre-school children, the overall IDA rate in 1998 was 78%, while no less than 90% of 6-11 month old babies are anaemic (ibid).
|Table A7.2 Survival and nutritional indicators for Nepal
|Child mortality rate (per 1000 live births)
|Crude death rates (per 100 births)
|Maternal death rates (per 100 live births)
|Life expectancy at birth
|Nutritional status of children
|Percent severely stunned
|Source: FAO (forthcoming) Table 3.22
- There is also evidence of intra-household nutritional discrimination against girls in Nepal, as they score below boys on a range of nutritional and survival indicators (Table A7.2). This reflects the low social status of females, male dominance and male preference within many segments of Nepalese (and indeed South Asian) society.
- Table A7.3 indicates that poverty, and therefore food insecurity, has an important spatial dimension, with the Central Region having only half the poverty incidence found in the Far Western Region. This is partly because of the remoteness of the Far Western areas, but more because of an unusually unequal landholding structure and the feudalistic social relationships that prevail in the Far West, and indeed the Midwest. The close relationship between altitude and food production potential is repeated with poverty. With just one exception, within a given region, the mountains are poorer than the hills, and the hills are poorer than the Terai.
|Table A7.3 Incidence of poverty by region and ecological division
|Source: UNDP 1998
- The only reason this does not quite hold in the central Region is that the three urbanised districts of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur are in the Central Hills. Urban areas are significantly better off than rural areas in terms of poverty indices, as can be seen from Table A7.4.
|Table A7.4 Urban and rural poverty incidence (poverty line of NPR 4,404/person/annum)
||Head-count index (% population below poverty line)
||Poverty gap index
||Squared poverty gap index
|Source: NPC 2002b Table 1
- At the individual district level, there are some important exceptions to the rule that the mountains are the poorest parts of the country. The mountain division contains not only the district with the lowest per capita food production in the country (Bajhang, 1,060 kcal/day) but also the one with the highest such figure (Manang, at 5,269) (ICIMoD 1997).3 This is partly because Nepal’s food balance sheet is couched in terms of cereals, whereas non-cereal starchy staples, particularly potato, are more important in the mountains, indicating that the food balance sheet to some extent underestimates food availability. Livestock rearing is also relatively important in the mountain division, so that food production is higher than the per capita arable area would suggest. Moreover, some mountain districts have a diverse range of livelihood options open to them. Manangis are a case in point. They are a traditional trading community, and are so successful at this that their district ranks as the least disadvantaged in the country in terms of the poverty and deprivation index. In other mountain districts tourism has played a growing role in bringing new livelihood options. The same picture of interdistrict variability applied in the Terai. Although, generally speaking, this division has the lowest incidence of poverty, the Terai district of Rautahat ranks fourth from the bottom of all 75 districts in terms of the Poverty and Deprivation Index (ibid.). Although it is the most agriculturally productive part of the country, inequality in the Terai is also high, with a high prevalence of sharecroppers, landless agricultural workers and bonded labourers.
- Problems of inequitable food access are compounded by poor food utilisation. Standards of sanitation and hygiene are low, as is access to safe drinking water. Marginalised and low caste communities throughout Nepal have poorer access to water than the high caste, due to prevailing social norms, so that those who are already disadvantaged are condemned to suffer further from poor sanitation and water-borne ailments. Only one in three families has a latrine (even fewer in the rural areas), and even where there is a latrine only around 50% of family members use it. Many institutions, including schools, lack sanitary latrines. An estimated 1,500 MT of faeces are discharged into fields and waterways daily, contributing to 10 million episodes of diarrhoea among children under five. At any given point in time, two out of every five babies are suffering from diarrhoea (UNICEF 2003). The result is poor food utilisation and serious nutrient loss. Intestinal worm infestation is also associated with poor hygiene and sanitation. It contributes to vitamin A deficiency, iron deficiency disorders and growth failure by preventing children from absorbing nutrients from their already inadequate diets.
- Part of the problem of poor food utilisation arises from inappropriate food practices and beliefs. UNICEF notes that, despite almost universal awareness (97.8%) of oral rehydration salt (ORS) and the need to drink fluids during bouts of diarrhoea, about 10% of children are not given anything to drink during such episodes. In addition, while almost half of parents use oral re-hydration therapy to treat diarrhoea, almost two out of ten people do not give their child any food during diarrhoea and four out of ten give less food than usual. This could contribute to malnutrition in children, as most under-five year olds suffer about three to four episodes of diarrhoea per year (UNICEF 2003).
3. What government and donors have been doing?
- The government’s chief policy instrument for addressing the problem of declining food availability is the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APROSC-JMA 1995). The APP has formed the agricultural sections of both the previous (Ninth) and the current (Tenth) Five Year Development Plans. The APP is unashamedly growth-, rather than poverty-focused. Its basic aim is to boost the agricultural growth rate from 3% in the base year to 5% by 2005/6 and then to maintain it at level throughout the remainder of the 15-year Plan period. Poverty reduction is viewed essentially as a consequence of this growth, and is to be achieved through falling food prices, increasing farm incomes (the two are seen as compatible because of envisaged efficiency gains in both production and marketing), and the generation of employment opportunities for the rural poor through multipliers that rapidly expand the rural non-farm economy.
- An assessment of Nepal’s recent agricultural performance (ANZDEC 2002) found that, not only has the APP’s envisaged crop diversification not occurred, but that the share of cereals in crop production has actually increased, from 77% in the five years before the APP to 84% in the succeeding five years. This has resulted in a post-APP increase in per capita cereals production, which the ANZDEC study attributed to the Plan. But many commentators argue that this growth coincided with favourable weather conditions across the Gangetic floodplain, and that the improvement in Nepal was attributable to this, rather than the APP. Meanwhile the way in which the APP has been implemented (through the ‘Priority Pocket Programme’) has concentrated official service delivery mechanisms on the more favoured parts of districts, thus, if anything, exacerbating, rather than reducing, rural inequality.
- In sharp contrast with the APP, the Tenth Plan (2003-8) and its associated Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and Medium Term Expenditure Framework, view broad-based growth and employment generation as the principle means of transforming economic development into an opportunity for both alleviating poverty and simultaneously strengthening social and political stability (NPC 2002a,b,c). There are four strategies:
- High, sustainable and broad-based economic growth, the objective of which is to stimulate the “resurgence of broad-based economic activities”;
- Social sector and infrastructure development, the objective of which is “enhancement of productivity of human resources and communities in a sustainable way”;
- Targeted programmes, the objective of which is the “enhancement of the productive capacity of marginalized, deprived, ignored, remote, weak, and alienated communities and regions in a sustainable way”;
- Good governance, the objective of which is the “establishment of sustainable good governance in the national development process on the basis of transparency, accountability, multi-faceted decision process, and decentralization”.
- If successfully implemented, all of these policies could contribute importantly to improved food security, particularly in the shape of better food access among the poor and disadvantaged, but it remains to be seen whether the implementation capacity exists to push through the necessary reforms. One major reform, liberalisation of fertiliser importation and distribution, has already been put into effect. Other reforms – notably the acceptance of a need for a pluralistic approach to agricultural service provision, and the decentralisation of agricultural and livestock extension services to district level – have already been decided upon, although implementation is presently in abeyance because of the temporary suspension of the electoral process at all levels.
- Donor support for agriculture in Nepal has been falling for many years, and has only recently begun to show signs of “bottoming out” and possibly growing once more. DFID is one of the few donors to have continued to support agricultural development in general and APP implementation in particular – especially in helping to make it more pro-poor. Five DFIDsupported projects/programmes presently support APP objectives, while another is in process of start-up. Other than DFID, the Asian Development Bank is the strongest supporter of agricultural development in Nepal, with programmes in livestock development and crop diversification. ADB has been instrumental in streamlining the government’s food distribution programme for the remote districts, which had long been criticised for supplying only government servants and influential individuals.
- Outside of the agricultural sector, useful donor-supported work is being done to address the problem of poor food quality, micronutrient deficiencies in the diet and poor food utilisation. UNICEF is supporting national programmes in sanitation, safe water supply, girls’ education, and non-food aspects of nutrition (vitamin A capsules, de-worming treatment for children, iron-folate tablets for pregnant women and progress towards universal salt iodisation). The World Food Programme works with government to improve food access for the disadvantaged, including mothers and babies (mother and child healthcare), schoolchildren (school meals, food for education) and refugees from Bhutan. A number of donors, including DFID, Danida and GTZ, channel food to the needy through WFP interventions such as food for work. Some of these are used to improve rural access, thereby addressing the perennial relationship between remoteness and food insecurity.
What needs to be done?
- The insurgency situation has been extremely damaging to food security, particularly in parts of the country which have historically been among the most disadvantaged in this respect. Clearly a precondition for improving food security is improvement in the situation with respect to civil security. Great hopes have been pinned on the current peace talks, in terms both of restoring law and order and, perhaps even more importantly, of addressing the issues of crushing poverty and food insecurity that have for many years been at the centre of policy articulation, but at the periphery of policy implementation. Even before the insurgency, the situation was basically one of stagnation on the food security front, with the country falling steadily behind its neighbours. Assuming that progress can continue to be made on the civil security situation, breaking out of this stagnation and making progress towards realisation of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 would require action on all three food security fronts (availability, access and utilisation) as well as action to reduce people’s vulnerability to food insecurity.
- The growth- and production-oriented approach of the APP is at the centre of agricultural sector policy, as articulated in the Ninth and Tenth Five Year Plans. The APP’s lack of central poverty focus therefore puts agricultural policy at odds with other aspects of the IPRSP and the Tenth Plan. This is not simply an equity issue, but also an agricultural development issue. Because the poor have high marginal propensity to consume food, pro-poor growth almost automatically translates into growth of the agricultural market, creating a favourable investment climate which in turn stimulates agricultural growth. Without market growth it is difficult to see what will drive the APP’s envisaged rapid and sustained boost to agricultural growth and poverty reduction.
- The Nepal Terai is agro-ecologically well-suited to the Green Revolution, but a number of factors have prevented this potential from being realised. Issues such as fertiliser shortages, poor water control, and inadequate agricultural technology are addressed in the APP, but the Plan does not adequately tackle the issue of lack of effective demand for Terai cereals and other high volume produce. There are no great market prospects for these in India at present, because Nepal is now a high-cost producer compared with that country’s Green Revolution states. On the basis of comparative advantage, the Terai’s obvious market is the food deficit districts of the hills and mountains, but a combination of lack of purchasing power in these areas, and the high transaction costs involved in moving bulky low-value produce to them, constrains demand, and therefore the potential for increasing food availability from domestic sources. In Nepal, therefore, issues of food access are closely tied up with issues of food availability.
- The above argument points towards a strategy of increasing purchasing power in the hills and mountains through improving livelihood opportunities, thereby providing a market for Terai produce and a boost for its productivity. Hill and mountain areas have no comparative advantage in growing bulky low-value produce for subsistence, and yet much of their food supply is currently subsistence-dependent. Their comparative advantage lies in producing high value produce for the market – as has been demonstrated on a small scale by the introduction and popularisation of high-value horticultural production in the more accessible hill districts. This has allowed smallholders to switch to crops where they have a comparative advantage, and to sell these and purchase Terai cereals and other high volume foodstuffs. Given the huge size of the neighbouring Indian market, there is apparently almost unlimited scope for expansion here, but much of the produce is perishable and therefore crucially dependent on good market access. Non-perishable horticultural produce (such as vegetable seeds) is more suited to the more inaccessible areas. Remote areas actually have a comparative advantage in high-value seed production, because they represent “virgin territory”, with consequently little danger of cross-pollination by other varieties of the same crop (SDC is currently working on this opportunity).
- A number of other possibilities exist in remote areas for livelihood enhancement. The annual Dassain festival generates demand for huge numbers of livestock for sacrifice, which is presently met largely by imports from Indian and Tibet. There seems no obvious reason why Nepalese hill and mountain farmers could not gear their livestock production to meet the demands of this market. There are also possibilities of supplying wool from Baglung sheep to Nepal’s carpet industry, which requires a supply of this Tibetan-type wool to give its products their distinctive quality, and whose supply is so difficult otherwise to guarantee. The NGO sector played a key role in popularising high-value horticulture in the hills, and the acceptance by government of the need for a pluralistic and decentralised approach to extension provides an opportunity to further develop a pluralistic decentralised model in order to enable hill farmers to realise their potential.
- Since participatory poverty assessments identify lack of assets as the prime cause of poverty, and therefore food insecurity, land reform is an issue that cannot forever remain unaddressed. The recent land reform was more cosmetic than real, and inequality in landholding has been an underlying theme in the insurgency. Another asset that could be more effectively mobilised is forestry. Nepal has in many ways been a trail-blazer in community forestry, especially in the hills, but restrictions on the type of produce that can be removed from the forest have prevented realisation of the full potential of community forestry to enhance livelihoods in hill and mountain districts. Opportunities exist for industries based on sustainable forest use – up to and including furniture manufacture – to turn out products that would be of sufficiently high value to absorb relatively high transport costs.
- Clearly, the issue of poor accessibility of many districts, particularly mountain districts, is of crucial importance. The earlier-cited example of Manang inspires the belief that remoteness need not in itself be a barrier to poverty reduction and food security. An emerging, and potentially encouraging, approach to increasing accessibility of remote mountain districts is to route supplies through Tibet, which is largely plateau and has a much better road transport network than the adjoining mountain districts of Nepal. The authorities in Tibet are not known to have raised any objection to this practice, but Nepal’s forthcoming accession to the WTO will in any case give her the legal right to use Chinese territory as a transit route.4 Building access roads to link with Tibet’s road network is crucial to this effort, and multi-donor supported initiatives, including inputs by DFID, are assisting here. Much of this ties in with FFW, and so combines improved immediate access to food with longer term reduction in transaction costs.
- The health and sanitation situation of rural Nepal is clearly appalling, particularly for children. There is a limit to the extent to which increasing food availability and food access will improve food security so long as nutrients are denied to those who need them because of ignorance or mistaken beliefs, and so long as nutrients once consumed remain unavailable because of factors like diarrhoeal disease or worm infestation. Clearly investment in clean water and sanitary toilet facilities must go hand-in-hand with health, hygiene and nutrition education.
- There are too many unknowns in the realm of nutrition education. The fact that 10% of parents do not even give their children water to drink during episodes of diarrhoea when virtually all of them know of the benefits of oral rehydration is puzzling. Similarly, the fact that of the 10% of pregnant women who receive iron supplements only 2% actually take them for three months or more, and virtually none take them for more than 6 months, requires urgent investigation. Likewise, the fact that of those with access to a latrine only half actually use it needs to be investigated. Action without such knowledge is unlikely to be entirely effective.
- References are available at http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/working_papers/wp231/wp231_references.pdf
- However, the SOFI figures also show a (literally) unbelievable earlier improvement for Nepal, where the prevalence rate supposedly fell from 49% in 1979-81 to 19% in 1990-92 – a 61% improvement in just over a decade which caused the country to change from the worst in South Asia to the best! No explanation is offered to account for this feat.
- Figures in parentheses represent the caloric value of food production divided by rural population adjusted for adult equivalence.
- Final Act of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, 1947; Article 5: Freedom of Transit
- Poverty in Nepal by Bhuban B Bajracharya NSSD Nepal – 2001 | Archived version in pdf
- NSSD Country Dialogues: A collection of Reports and Status Reviews on Nepal