In 2015-2016 a drought hit Nepal’s mid-west region. Farmers of Bajhang district found themselves caught in a tragedy of continuing food insecurity and poverty and were forced to migrate to Simikot, the headquarters of neighbouring Humla district, to look for work.
According to government, the drought – the worst in 40 years – has exacerbated the region’s economic vulnerability. But there has been little attempt to understand the causes of this insecurity, and more immediately, that of the drought itself.
Far-Western districts like Bajhang and Bajura and mid-Western districts in the Karnali zone – Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Dolpo, Kalikot – have remained in the grip of persistent poverty. In 2011, Humla ranked highest in Nepal on the poverty index, a position it held even in 2001. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2014, it was also among the lowest five districts in terms of education, and child nutrition and the overall Human Development Index.
A reason for this stubborn economic vulnerability is the vertiginous terrain and the corresponding lack of roads, making it difficult for the state, the market, and non-government organisations to access the area to provide services and goods.
For instance, some villagers in Humla walk for four days to reach the district headquarters which has the only airport in the region – to collect a sack of rice or buy a piece of corrugated tin to carry back home. The aridity and the terrain make it impossible for even subsistence agriculture and the area’s remoteness from the seat of power in Kathmandu has led to political neglect. But besides these political and social reasons, new research on the ecosystem of the region suggests that the causes might be more complicated.
The dust bowl
The Karnali zone gets its name from the perennial Karnali river that originates in the Tibetan plateau and enters Nepal as Humla Karnali near Khojarnath. It then meanders through the Himalaya collecting smaller feeder rivers to join the Mahakali River at Brahmaghat in the Indian plains to form the Ghaghara, a major tributary of the Ganga. This network of rivers connects the fate of people in South Asia in an elemental way, and any change in river flow in Tibet and Nepal has consequences for India and Bangladesh downstream.
The Karnali river basin consists of 1,461 glaciers and a total area of 1120 sq.km area and a drainage area of 44,000 sq.km most of which is in Nepal. Despite this proximity to rivers and alluvial soil, only 1 per cent of the area is cultivable.
In Nepal, approximately 45 per cent of the river basin lies above 4,500 metres and is covered by snow for most of the year. Most of the rest land is between 2500-4500 metres, and is not suitable for intensive agriculture. Since much of the region is also in a partial rain shadow area, rainfall here is low – 80 per cent of it in the months of July and August. Any drastic change to this ecological balance often spells disaster to the people living in the river basin.
We constructed the taps with the help of the government few years back, and we noticed the force of the water decreasing, but since the khaderi took hold in April-May, there has been no water in these taps.
Laxmi Prasad Jaisi, farmer and president, South Humla village school committee
The 2015 monsoon rains were a disappointment to the Karnali region. But it was when the region received little snowfall in the winter of 2015-2016 that the people knew they had to prepare, the best they could, for khaderi (drought). People here are no stranger to drought or famine earlier; the region suffered droughts in 2006, 2008, and 2009 and famine in 1960, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1975 and 1996. This time around however, the drought emphasised the increasing weather variability: hailstorm in 2006, heavy snowfall in June 2007, drought in 2008, and floods in 2010.
The drought also led to a shortage of water for domestic consumption. In Maila-7 VDC (village development community, the administrative unit defining a village), in south Humla, all of the six taps in the village with 44 households have run dry.
“We constructed the taps with the help of the government few years back, and we noticed the force of the water decreasing, but since the khaderi took hold in April-May, there has been no water in these taps,” says Laxmi Prasad Jaisi, a farmer and president of the village school committee.
In Muchu VDC, Tashi Lama, a farmer, tells me how there was very little snow in winter and how “even places that were not dry, now are”. Lumjung Khola, the small feeder stream near his village, now holds a meager cache of water compared to what he has come to know as normal in his 59 years. From all across Karnali the news is similar – no rains, and scanty snowfall had led to the drying of water sources, creating a drought and worsening food security.
Poor monsoon rains led to a sharp drop in the summer crops of paddy, maize and millet, while a poor winter rain meant failed winter crops such as wheat and barley. As a result, between November 2015 and March 2016, around 87 per cent of Karnali’s population of 172,500, were thought to be ‘highly food insecure’ or ‘moderately insecure’, needing to sell livelihood assets to access food and medicine.
Anxiety has forced people to migrate in search for work. The Nepal Food Security Monitoring System’s (NeKSAP), a government agency, reports that migration from Karnali has increased tremendously in this past year; in Mugu district alone, out-migration increased by 25 per cent.
In some VDCs, over 80 per cent of Dalit households were found to have at least one member of the family who had migrated out from the region since the drought. Many moved to towns to sell their labour, while others crossed the open border into India.