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5 May 2020 | Blog

Will a hunger pandemic follow in the mountains?

Abid Hussain, Dhrupad Choudhury & Arabinda Mishra

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With remittances drying up and disruptions in supply chains as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns, mountain communities fear a slide back into poverty. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

In mid-March, as governments scrambled to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, banning flights, halting surface transport, and announcing nationwide lockdowns, millions of daily wage earners and migrant workers suddenly found themselves stranded, jobless, without income, food, and shelter. A large number of them are migrant workers from the mountains. With transportation suspended, they could neither return home nor remit funds to their families. Many poor mountain households suddenly found themselves food insecure, with no remittances and little or no access to food supplies and markets.

Food security in the mountains has been a matter of concern with agricultural productivity in steady decline over several years. This is one of the major reasons for high outmigration and many households have depended on remittances to lift them out of poverty and food insecurity. With remittances drying up and disruptions in supply chains as a result of the lockdowns, food security has come back to haunt mountain households. Many also fear a slide back into poverty. With access to essential food items seriously compromised, the present situation highlights the inadequacy of existing food access and distribution mechanisms and raises questions about the preparedness for ensuring food and nutritional security for mountain communities in the aftermath of the pandemic.

This is the very definition of precarity – the lack of predictability, livelihood security, and social safety nets that ensure material and psychological welfare. Workers driven by circumstance to leave their mountain homes in search of economic and food security have been forced to return to, as many of them describe, the relative security of their “insecure” villages.

Hunger and malnutrition in the HKH

The majority of mountain farmers are engaged in subsistence agriculture and dependence on the plains for food supplies ranges between 30% and 60% in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). This reliance has increased over time and is driven to a large extent by changing dietary habits and preferences for processed foods and other staples. On the other hand, mountain communities are increasingly giving up on cultivation of traditional crops that are highly nutritious and are much sought after in the plains. The result is a very high incidence of food and nutrition insecurity across the HKH. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report revealed that around one-third of the population in the HKH is food insecure and roughly half suffer from some form of malnutrition with severe impacts on children and women.

In mountain regions, the risk of disruption to food supplies and distribution is high even in normal times given the seasonality and increasingly frequent climate-related hazards. However, disruptions resulting from measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have created new risks and uncertainties, far reaching in their impacts, and a source of additional vulnerabilities for mountain communities. With the lockdown, mountain households dependent on remittances, small businesses, and daily wages find their flow of funds drying up and their purchasing power severely eroded. Mountain farmers – predominantly smallholders – find markets unreachable and are faced with the option of distress sales or outright dumping of their produce, effectively eroding the hope of returns and any cash earnings during this season. The pandemic has also hit tourism hard in mountains, leaving dependent households impoverished and food insecure and facing an uncertain future.

In remote, hard-to-reach villages, the decline in dietary diversity as a result of limited or no access to foodgrain and pulses is likely to result in increased malnutrition with severe impacts on children and women. Studies by ICIMOD show that for a majority of poor rural households, foodgrain security from their own production lasts, at best, for around six months. For many such households, mid-March to June is a lean period when food insecurity is common. Without support from public distribution systems or the means to purchase food from the market, food insecurity is a very real threat for a large section of the mountain population. Further, rural communities’ access to health services in nearby urban centres is also disrupted, which can compound the impacts on their general health.

In remote hard to reach villages, the decline in dietary diversity
In remote, hard-to-reach villages, the decline in dietary diversity as a result of limited or no access to foodgrain and pulses is likely to result in increased malnutrition. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


Addressing immediate needs

Upland farmers, particularly smallholders, need to start preparations for the next sowing season, and although restrictions for farming activities have been eased, farmers face labour shortages and difficulties in sourcing inputs. Land preparation, sowing, and irrigation need to start immediately, but with disruptions in transport and communication, most upland farmers expect the coming weeks to be challenging. Livestock farmers face an uphill task in arranging fodder and forage for their animals without extension services from line agencies. Any delays in the agricultural calendar will have implications for the next season’s productivity and by extension, the food security of upland households in the coming year. The impact of the pandemic on food security, therefore, is not only immediate but has implications for the coming year and possibly beyond.

While direct cash transfers and food aid – the immediate response of governments – may address current food requirements of mountain communities, a stable food supply over the next year will need to take into account the added requirements from a large number of returnee migrant workers. This will require a drastic increase in procurement and augmenting existing distribution networks. This is an area where governments can mobilize the large network of community-managed institutions, self-help groups, cooperatives, and their federations, and traditional organizations in the HKH as strategic collaborators. Some have suggested setting up village-level “food granaries”, managed by such groups, to decentralize public distribution and ensure access to food during such crises. This becomes critical as an urgent need – and one rapidly snowballing into a crisis – has emerged for better targeting of financial and food aid towards the returnees, wage earners, and the destitute.

With more shocks disrupting modern supply chains
With more shocks disrupting modern supply chains, mountain farmers could switch back to diversified cropping systems, neglected and underutilized mountain crops, and native livestock, which are more resilient. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


Strengthening local food systems

The present crisis offers opportunities for bringing about transformative changes that promote resilience building and foster long-term sustainability of mountain farming systems. Given their painful experience with disrupted supply chains of agro-inputs, mountain farmers could be receptive to switch back to diversified cropping systems and the revival of native livestock and neglected and underutilized mountain crops (NUMCs) that require minimal external inputs and are therefore less susceptible to these disruptions. Increased R&D investment by government along with appropriate public–private partnerships for large-scale technology deployment focused on native livestock and NUMCs will strengthen local food systems in the mountains and reduce the external food dependence in coming years, enhancing self-reliance and thereby increasing resilience of farming systems and the communities. It will also address the issues of micronutrient deficiency and overall malnutrition in the mountains. Initiatives such as that taken up by the Government of Sikkim offer a good template for promoting organic farming. A similar programme should also be encouraged across the region for promoting “safe and healthy” food from the mountains – particularly mountain niche crops – and strengthen the branding of mountain products that will help deepen markets and encourage mountain entrepreneurs.

Innovation and regional cooperation

To strengthen input support, community-led mechanisms – lead farmers, local community resource persons, and farmer field schools – need to be linked with formal extension agencies. In the mountain context, where government extension services are limited, involving local entrepreneurs in input sourcing, food storage, distribution, and extension service provisioning can further augment the sector. This is an important area that requires immediate government attention. International returnee migrants, given their proven risk-taking ability and the exposure to external economic systems and technology, will be smart enough to take advantage of enabling policies by the government and can be significant contributors to the post-COVID 19 recovery process. The financial remittances and skills of returnee migrants can be a gamechanger in this context and steps should be taken to harness this potential. Agencies should also look at IT and fintech to facilitate the linkage of farmer producer groups to urban markets. Internet penetration in the mountains is pervasive in most HKH countries and there is great potential for fintech startups and incubation centres to contribute to product development, e-commerce, online banking, and insurance.

Finally, regional cooperation among the HKH countries is key to enhancing overall food security and insulating mountain communities from future shocks. In the immediate aftermath, governments are expected to introduce export bans on essential food items to manage their own post-pandemic food security. Concessions for neighbouring countries, especially those that are economically weak and have large vulnerable populations, will be crucial to address regional food security concerns at this time. Achieving long-term security will require relaxation of trade barriers to promote regional value chains and intra-regional trade. Similarly, research collaboration focusing on productivity enhancement in rainfed mountain agriculture, development and exchange of germplasm – a recent example being the exchange of breeding yak bulls between Bhutan, India, and Nepal – can go a long way in addressing long-term food and livelihood insecurity in mountain communities.

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