Almost six months after Nepal was devastated by a massive earthquake, relief efforts are literally running on fumes. Tankers are unable to drive across the border from India. The country is running out of fuel. Will aid agencies be able to stock up remote, mountainous communities before they are cut off by the first winter snows?
India blames violent protests in areas of Nepal’s frontier sparked by anger over a new constitution for blocking fuel convoys. Nepali officials accuse India of imposing an unofficial blockade. Political differences aside, the fuel shortage is hurting people, especially those high in the mountains who lost a great deal in the disaster.
About 9,000 people were killed in the 25 April earthquake and another that followed on 12 May. Some 900,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. Many people still rely on humanitarian agencies for food and shelter, but the fuel shortage means supplies are not being delivered.
“Our distribution to 224,000 people has practically ground to a halt,” said Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokeswoman for the country's main humanitarian provider, the World Food Programme.
“You have more than 84,000 people in the affected areas that live high in the mountains,” she said. “This is a particularly critical time to reach them to provide them with food and shelter supplies, before the snow sets in.”
Jaquemet estimated that these people would be cut off from the world in about three to four weeks, and said WFP was therefore prioritising its diesel reserves to target transport to these areas.
More than 40 people in Nepal have died during protests against the new constitution, which was passed by parliament on 20 September. Many in the Madhesi and Tharu communities oppose the size and borders of seven new provinces created by the constitution, claiming they will now be under–represented in parliament.
India has also voiced opposition to the new constitution and demanded that Nepal’s government address the concerns of the Madhesi community, which straddles the border. India fears that political unrest in Nepal could spill over into its territory, according to Happymon Jacob, a strategic studies professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“India does have legitimate concerns about the developments in Nepal,” he said. “Given the ethnic linkages between the two countries, socio-political developments in Nepal would have implications for neighbouring Indian states as well.”
In statements to media and at demonstrations, Nepali protest leaders and politicians have blamed India for the fuel shortage.
“The tankers are being stopped outside the border," Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, a Nepali home ministry spokesman, told IRIN.
But Indian officials have denied allegations that it has imposed a blockade and instead blamed Nepal for its poor security.
Dhakal, however, said his government could guarantee that trucks would have safe passage. "I assure you there won't be any law and order problem on our side," he said.
According to Jacob, any insensitivity to its recovering neighbour now could cancel gains made during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal, and strengthen anti-India sentiment in the country.
“By not reaching out to Nepal before the onset of winter, New Delhi would end up undoing the goodwill it created by carrying out massive rescue operations in the country during the recent earthquake,” said Jacob. “New Delhi's policies should not lead to another humanitarian disaster in Nepal.”
The fuel shortage has hit Nepal at a critical time, as winter approaches.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that the current crisis is taking place when the humanitarian efforts should be at the peak, to reach people at high altitudes at this time,” Jamie McGoldrick, the UN resident coordinator for Nepal, told IRIN.
McGoldrick said the fuel shortage was threatening deliveries of “winterisation” supplies, including stoves, insulation material and clothing for those living high in the mountains.
“A continued fuel shortage would lead to paralysis of the operations on land and air."
Plan International, which is running disaster preparedness and risk reduction programmes in Nepal to compliment the relief effort, said it was also struggling to keep operations going as supplies were stranded at the border because of the fuel shortage.
“Our suppliers are delayed. There are long queues of trucks at the border transporting relief material,” Paolo Lubrano, the organisation’s deputy emergency response manager, told IRIN. “If the crisis carries on, we will soon be compelled to suspend the response in the most remote areas.”
Government services are also being affected by fuel rationing, said Dhakal, the foreign ministry spokesman. The government has allocated fuel for essential services including ambulances and hospitals, but the crisis has hit the health sector hard as trucks carrying fuel also transport medical supplies, which are now running out.
“Things are getting worse and worse," Dhakal said, adding that it wouldn't be long before people would be dying in hospitals due to the lack of supplies.