Climate crisis → drought → food deficit → migration

Half-century of eastern Nepal’s rainfall data points to a link between chronic drought and depopulation


Rainfall data from eastern Nepal collected over the past 70 years point to a strong correlation between chronic drought and outmigration. Repeated and more frequent monsoon failures forced more and more people to abandon villages. 

Terathum, Dhankuta, Panchthar and Taplejung districts lost more than 40% of their population between 2001 and 2021. Archival data of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology shows that rainfall was below the annual national average for almost every year since the 1960s in what is supposed to be the wettest part of the country. 

In Panchakanya village of Terathum 40% of residents left in those 20 years. A nearby village, Thoklung, lost 42% of its population. Across the Tamor River, 44% of the people left the village of Kurule. A third of the inhabitants of Symbarumba in Panchthar left for the plains or cities. 

“People are still leaving. Those who have not migrated are also thinking about going down to Dharan or Damak,” says Chathar Ward 4 Chair Pushpa Karki, who says there were 2,500 votes cast in this ward in 2017 and in the 2022 local election there were only 1,125 ballots. 

Read also: The climate crisis is a water crisis in the Himalaya, Sonia Awale

To be sure, there are other factors behind this exodus which is happening right across Nepal’s mountains, such as a dearth of well-paying jobs, poor health care, and few opportunities for higher education. But the main reason is that droughts destroy crops. 

“There was a severe drought in the summer of 2018, the maize plants dried in their stalks and turned to straw,” remembers Tara Kharel Dhakal, Deputy Mayor of Chathar in Terathum. “People ran out of food and were desperate. We declared an emergency.” 

Climate → crisis → drought → food → deficit → migration
HIGH AND DRY, LOW AND WET: Parched fields above the Tamor River in Panchakanya village in eastern Nepal in March (above) and irrigated bamboo-fringed terrace farms in Taplejung.
Climate → crisis → drought → food → deficit → migration

Rainfall data for Terathum in 2018 corroborates that there was almost no rain in winter, and to make things worse, the district only saw half of its usual rain that monsoon. 

The rainfall gauges are located near the tops of mountains, where there is usually more precipitation. So the slopes below likely got even less rain than was recorded. 

Farmers had no irrigation systems to fall back on. Springs are rare and have gone dry, and the Tamor River is too far down the mountain. 

Climate → crisis → drought → food → deficit → migration
BROWN AND GREEN: Constrasting colours of fields in Terathum between those without irrigation (foreground, above), and with irrigation from a side stream. The glacier-fed Tamor River has plenty of water in the dry season (below) but it is too far down to be pumped up the mountain.
Climate → crisis → drought → food → deficit → migration

Prevailing wisdom suggests that Nepal is drier the more west you go, and the Karnali and Sudur Paschim regions are most drought prone. Outmigration due to water scarcity in Mustang district has emptied villages. But it looks like the climate crisis is causing dry spells even in the usually wet mountains of eastern Nepal. 

Only a quarter of arable land in Nepal is irrigated, and most of that is in the Tarai. Subsistence farmers in the mountains depend on rain-fed agriculture, so when it does not rain their only option is to migrate for work.

Rainfall data from measuring stations over the past 50 years or more across the eastern mountains shows that winter rain and monsoon failures have become more frequent. 

y nly 80% of the normal annual rain fell in 2018 in Mulghat, and the corn and buckwheat harvests were reduced in nearby Kurule. The local government gave cash handouts to farmers, but this did not convince people to stay.

In an average year, Jhapa and Ilam in the east get about 3,300mm of rain. Kathmandu Valley sees about 1,400mm, and Darchula in the far-west receives 700mm. The least precipitation is in Mustang and Dolpo in the trans-Himalayan rainshadow, although even these districts have seen some freak rainfall of late. 

Even though the total annual precipitation may still be the same, often the quality of rain is different: there are damaging torrential downpours and then weeks of no rain at all. 

Watershed expert Madhukar Upadhya describes eastern Nepal’s micro-climates, where wide variations exist even within small geographical areas: “The clouds tend to drop most of their moisture on the southern slopes of the Mahabharat Range, so there is less rain on the other side.” 

Dharan, for instance, gets 1,700mm of rain, but 15km to the north in Mulghat, the annual precipitation is half that. 

Elderly farmers can recite from memory the years in which rains have failed: 1961, 1965, 1972, 1975, 1982, 1994. Their recollections tally with archival precipitation data for the region. For example, there was a downpour that dumped 385mm of rain on 23-24 June 1961, but for the next two months there was only 180mm.

“I was young in 1961 and there was always either too much rain or too little, the fields were fallow and we had no food,” remembers Dikura Devi Thapaliya in Terathum. “Only those who had springs and could irrigate their fields had harvests that year.” 

Read also: First drought, then downpour, Smita Magar

Four years later, there was another drought that caused a famine, forcing families to forage for wild roots. In Iwa, the town council asked households that had extra grain to sell it to neighbours, but no one was willing. The villagers did not have food for the 10-day trek down to Dharan to collect government rations, so food was air dropped by the state. 

Even worse was the nationwide drought of 1972, when the British Royal Air Force helped Nepal with Hercules aircraft to drop grain by parachute in what it called Operation Khana Cascade. Some 52 tons were dropped on Taplejung and Terathum alone. 

This was the Panchayat era, and even the usually-understated government controlled news agency, RSS, filed a report from eastern Nepal about the terrible conditions: ‘The harvest of corn and buckwheat has failed in villages around Dhankuta. Rice harvests are one-third of normal. There is starvation in Terathum. Many have migrated to the Tarai or elsewhere, or are working as coolies along the Dharan-Dhankuta road.’

The next serious drought was in 1982, with Terathum getting a record low of only 254mm of rain – only 38% of normal monsoon precipitation. 

The Tamor had never been so dry before that, nor has it since. Hydrological data acquired by Nepali Times show that in September 1982 river flow was only 15% of mean for that month. Ninety percent of the maize crop in the east was destroyed, paddy wilted before it could be transplanted. The rice terraces were barren. 

Nepal’s two neighbours donated grain so that villagers would not starve. More than 2,500 farmers from Terathum made the four-day trek down to Dhankuta to collect 100kg sacks of wheat from India, or maize from China. Even the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia donated 5,000 tons of rice and 2,500 tons of wheat. 

Not much has changed in the villages of Terathum and along the banks of the Tamor since – except that there are fewer people. Farmers who remain still depend on timely and adequate rain to keep their soil watered. 

“If the gods send rain, we get to eat. Otherwise we starve,” Naramaya Tamang in Terathum puts it simply. Her farm grows enough food to feed the family for only half the year. 

Those who have property have sold it to move to the plains. The government has stopped food aid, citing new roads and letting market forces ensure supply. However, there are many like Naramaya who have fallen through the social safety net.

The other thing that has changed in these mountains is that people are migrating not just to the plains, but overseas to the Gulf or Malaysia. The villages on both sides of the Tamor River are devoid of young men, and increasingly, young women. Every family has a member abroad. It is the money they send back that helps the elderly relatives survive. 

Climate → crisis → drought → food → deficit → migration

Over the last 20 years, Panchthar saw the second highest number of permits to work overseas in proportion to the district’s population. Terathum ranks third on this metric and Dhankuta is sixth. The adjoining district to the west, Khotang, is number one. 

Dhanusha in the Tarai has the highest numbers of people migrating out, but most of those workers return. Here in Dhankuta, Terathum, Panchthar and Taplejung, when young people leave, most leave for good. 

The main result of the climate breakdown is the lack of water. Deficient rain and springs going dry are the main reasons why farmers are migrating, explains the Chair of Ward 3 of Chaubise village, Madan Tumsa. 

He says: “These are climate migrants. The soil is too dry to farm, and there is nothing to eat. People are not leaving to earn more, up to 80% are leaving because they cannot grow food due to the lack of water.” 

Research for this three-part series was supported by the Barbara Foundation.

This is the first of a three-part series in Nepali Times analysing meteorological, hydrological and demographic data from eastern Nepal, showing the impact of the climate crisis on rainfall, farming and outmigration. The second and third installments will appear on 12 and 26 April respectively.