Kathmandu saw its first known starvation death last week: Surya Bahadur Tamang, who’d spent several decades hauling goods in Kathmandu, was found dead on the sidewalks of Kirtipur. He did not make enough money to rent a room for himself, so he slept on the streets. On Saturday, May 23, exactly two months after the lockdown started and all work shut down, he was found dead, still clutching the woven jute strap he used to carry loads on his back. The locals said he had no family. He’d been eating free food offered by local organizations. Yet that wasn’t enough to ward off starvation.
How many people have died already is up for debate: on Twitter, there was news of at least one other man who had died of hunger in the Tarai, news which went unreported in the national media. These are not isolated incidents but a systematic failure of justice. As time passes and the lockdown continues, there will be more starvation deaths.
In a 2017 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), almost two million people in Nepal were considered undernourished. Nepalis living in remote mountain areas had less access to food than those in the Tarai.
The government of Nepal has made no plans to feed the estimated 10-15 percent of the population—two million undernourished, plus 1.5 to potentially three million migrants who have returned from various cities of India—who already faces hunger.
On top of the lack of government preparation, we have a locust infestation, which has moved up from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh to Uttar Pradesh, just across Nepal’s border. The FAO estimates that the locust invasion will grow bigger by June-July, with the advent of wet weather and the monsoon. We could potentially lose much of our major crops. Coupled with this is a border dispute with India, which could again trigger a blockade similar to the one in 2015. There will be less food export to rely upon as the locusts destroy essential crops and cause food shortages within India.
The Nepal government is still focused on developing immediate response plans for the Covid-19 pandemic. The primary focus so far has been managing the health sector and implementing the lockdown. As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, there is an urgent need to also focus on other crisis that will compound the risks from Covid-19. The most immediate threat is famine.
Many countries have started rethinking their food trade and food security status. If countries like India and China do not keep trade open and supply chains working, food security risks for Nepal could be devastating. It is therefore of utmost importance to start discussing the importance of local food production and food sovereignty for Nepal.
The returning migrant workers, who are now only viewed as a health risk, could be Nepal’s opportunity to win back our own food self-sufficiency. There are vast tracks of empty land in the hills and mountains and even Tarai. Out-migration and labor shortage was one of the reasons for abandoned cultivable land. Therefore, we need to capitalize on this opportunity and direct the returning labor force into farming. Nepal has deep roots in agriculture, and most of our young people already know how to farm. What they need to get started is government support for seeds, fertilizers, tools, and markets.
Local governments could provide support by making land leasing easier so that ownership rights are protected but the land is not left unplanted. Water management technology, seeds fertilizers and other inputs are needed as well. The government must also set up farmer co-ops to link farmers to larger rural and urban markets. The actual approach will need to be managed at a local level. There is no single silver bullet approach. This also gives the local governments an opportunity to demonstrate their prowess.
In Germany, when farmers needed extra help to harvest some spring crops that usually relied on migrant laborers from Eastern Europe, students from universities volunteered to help. The universities were closed due to the Covid-19 and farmers even paid the students so it was a win-win situation. The context in Nepal would be different, but we need to find a way to increase our agricultural production. We cannot leave our lands barren and simply wait for the crisis to slowly unfold. Action needs to be taken now to hire students for agricultural work, to subsidize and support women farmers, and startup farmer co-ops.
Also urgent is the need to prepare for a locust invasion. While chemical sprays can keep the most immediate swarms at bay, they may harm other beneficial insects, so we should also think about biological control of the pests. Wasps are known to be natural predators of locusts. We could ask Netherlands, which has top-notch biological pest control expertise, for help with designing an integrated pest management solution. We can also use drones as well as airplanes which can fly down towards the swarms and disperse them with noise. Scientists have shown the locusts stop swarming when there’s a lot of noise.
We should not let this crisis go to waste. Let us use this opportunity to build back our food sovereignty. What we decide to do now will determine whether we face famine or feast in the upcoming winter.