Two months after the first of two major earthquakes hit Nepal, people in six farming districts in the north of the country are warning that some of the greatest dangers lie ahead.
Heavy monsoon rains have begun, dumping water relentlessly on mountain slopes already loosened by the quakes and many aftershocks.
These areas bore the brunt of the devastation, with one district — Sindhupalchowk — accounting for four out of 10 of the more than 8,700 people killed in the disaster. An estimated 90% of homes were damaged.
The threat of further landslides hangs over the slopes and valleys, adding more stress and worry for farmers who are already traumatised. Before the rainy season, more than 1,000 landslides had been recorded, claiming lives and destroying more crops, roads and irrigation systems.
The threat of further landslides hangs over the slopes and valleys, adding more stress and worry for traumatised farmers
At the same time, food insecurity is rising. In the hardest-hit areas, most people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. They produce just enough food for their families with the bare minimum of livestock and basic tools, sometimes on as little as an acre of land. Any damage or loss instantly translates into less food on plates.
A report recently released by agencies working on food security in Nepal gives the clearest picture yet of the impact of the disaster on farmers in the worst-affected areas. It found they have lost much of their harvested crops of rice, maize, wheat and millet, and seeds for future planting, which are now buried under collapsed homes.
Cattle, poultry and other livestock were killed, and many farm tools lost, delivering a heavy blow to household income and nutrition. The report also found that one in four of these farm households were headed by women, with many men working in the Gulf states or elsewhere overseas to support their families. These households are more vulnerable to poor nutrition and more likely to resort to selling valuable assets, such as tools, for cash to buy food.
For now, these mountain farmers have salvaged what they can from their destroyed homes and are sheltering under tarpaulins, in plastic vegetable tunnels, or even in cowsheds. Many are waiting out the monsoon before deciding what to do next.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that more international support is needed to stave off the threat of prolonged food insecurity faced by some 900,000 people in these six districts. It estimates that $23.4m (£15m) in emergency agricultural assistance is required. Only about 25% has been received so far, from Norway, Canada, Italy, Belgium and FAO’s own funds. These humanitarian needs remain critical.
At the same time, the positive idea of “building back better” during longer-term reconstruction was mentioned repeatedly at a major international donor conference in Kathmandu in June. It is encouraging to see strong interest in projects to reduce the risk of future disasters and increase resilience to these crises.
The challenge now is to agree on how that would work in the context of Nepal, a country prone to earthquakes and landslides. Much of its landscape is covered by small-scale farms, clinging to the sides of mountains that run along a major faultline between the Indian and Eurasian plates. It’s not enough to simply help these farmers rebuild their homes, hand over some seeds for planting, and then walk away.
For example, as well as providing immediate support for crops and animals, the FAO is planning urgent rehabilitation work to stabilise risky mountain slopes and map and monitor major cracks in the earth for any movement. Farmers could be be given early warning of significant new landslide risks over the radio. The FAO will also support irrigation repairs, to help ensure a good winter harvest – particularly for potatoes and wheat.
The Nepalese are tenacious and hard-working. We owe it to them to help them emerge from this crisis stronger and better able to cope next time around.
Now is the time to start building resilience. There is both an opportunity and an imperative to help Nepal build back better. We must maintain the momentum on this idea, while continuing to meet the pressing humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable families.
Daniele Donati is deputy director, emergency and rehabilitation division at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He travelled to Nepal at the end of June