KATHMANDU • Struggling to survive after a deadly earthquake six months ago, Nepal is buckling under a protracted fuel crisis which has put a stranglehold on its economy and tourist arrivals.
A weeks-long blockade of a major border checkpoint by protesters who reject Nepal's new Constitution has sparked a fuel shortage and nationwide rationing, with vital supplies unable to get through, Agence France-Presse reported.
For almost a month, hundreds of protesters have blocked a bridge crossing in the town of Birgunj, 90km south of the capital Kathmandu, through which 60 per cent of Nepal's petroleum imports pass.
The protesters, from the ethnic Madhesi minority in Nepal's southern plains, are incensed about the planned division of the country into several federal provinces under the Constitution introduced last month. They feel it will leave them under-represented in the federal government.
Ordinary Nepalis are bearing the brunt of the shortages, after fuel and cooking gas became black market commodities that few can afford, Al Jazeera reported.
Mr Bhim Bahadur Gurung, who lost his home in the 7.8-magnitude quake in April which killed almost 8,900 people, is desperate to start rebuilding. But the fuel blockade has left him unable to obtain vital construction supplies.
"No cement, no rods, no roofs... how can I build my home?" Mr Gurung said from his village in Sindhupalchowk, one of the areas worst hit by the devastating earthquake.
"The villagers are all living in temporary shelters, this won't be enough when it starts snowing," said the 43-year-old farmer.
Meanwhile, mass cancellations of bookings by foreign tourists and renewed travel warnings by Western governments have raised fears of an economic fallout that could dwarf that caused by the tremors.
Aid organisations say the fuel crisis has severely hampered their operations, and the continued shortage could cut off relief supplies to communities in far-flung areas of the country.
The World Food Programme said it has been forced to halt distribution of relief goods and shelter supplies to 224,000 quake victims because of the fuel shortage. Its helicopter operations will run out of fuel this week, it added.
Australia, Britain and the United States have also issued warnings that fuel shortages are hampering emergency services and everyday travel throughout Nepal, according to Al Jazeera.
Fuel prices have skyrocketed as businesses struggle to operate. In Pokhara, a lakeside city, a litre of fuel can cost as much as US$10 (S$14) - 10 times the regular price.
The landlocked Himalayan nation has accused India, on which it is completely reliant for fuel supplies, of imposing a fuel embargo over the past month.
But India denies it is deliberately halting trucks at its border, insisting that the disruptions are coming from the other side.
"We have been requesting the Indian Oil Corporation continuously to resume supplies, but the response has not been satisfactory," said Mr Sushil Bhattarai, acting deputy general manager of Nepal Oil Corporation. "Right now we are only getting 10-15 per cent of our regular imports," he said, adding that the state oil agency has asked international fuel companies to supply petroleum products to Nepal.
In Thamel, a bustling tourist hot spot in Nepal, restaurants are trying to cope with the cooking gas shortage.
"I went into my favourite cafe, and they only had two items on the breakfast menu," Mr Barry Richards, a cartoonist from Australia, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera
"It's just a small inconvenience, but it affects me to see how Nepalese are struggling after the hard time they've had since the earthquake. They don't deserve this."