Nepal must prepare for climate migration

HIGH AND DRY: A village in Mustang is one of the increasing number of settlements that have been abandoned because of water shortage caused by climate change. Photo : GOPEN RAI

In the past, Nepalis have migrated to India for seasonal labour and military recruitment. Today they fly overseas for work. Tomorrow they may have to migrate in increasing numbers because of climate-induced disasters.

But the reason for migrating remains the same: reliance of Nepal’s farmers on rain-fed agriculture, which leaves them vulnerable to erratic monsoons. And as extreme weather events become more frequent due to the climate emergency, more and more Nepalis may be forced to move out.

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Already, climate change is causing more frequent droughts, flash floods and rising temperatures, reducing crop yields across Nepal. Climate change has lowered the water table and dried natural springs, the snowline has receded across the Himalaya, and glaciers are retreating dramatically.

The shortage of water is already forcing entire villages to relocate, and the situation is expected to worsen in the next few decades as the dry season flow from snow-fed rivers declines because little ice remains to melt.

Nepalis have been migrating for centuries to escape poverty, indebtedness and monsoon failures. All these push factors have now been magnified by climate-related hazards, and are already resulting in increased mobility.

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“We are witnessing a rapid rise in temperature and a resulting climate shift. But people in rural mountainous and coastal areas have not been able to adapt to these changes, forcing them to move,” explained climate expert Manjeet Dhakal, who is in Madrid for the United Nations climate summit, COP25, citing the example of pastoralists relocating in Mustang district because of prolonged drought.

Scientists have had to revise estimates of the rate of global warming because the impact is being felt much earlier than expected, with heat waves, larger forest fires, more intense storms, unseasonal blizzards and extreme rainfall events. The past decade was the hottest ever on record, Europe saw its hottest ever June this year, sub-Saharan Africa experienced unprecedented drought, while Cyclone Fani triggered the evacuation and displacement of 3.5 million people in Bangladesh and India in May.

Here in Nepal, over 80,000 people were infected with dengue this monsoon in an unprecedented outbreak that scientists said was exacerbated by a warming climate. Bara district recorded a rare tornado that killed 80 people, and razed villages. Floods in the Tarai are getting worse every year.

“There are many reasons for people to migrate, but the additional stress from the risks of increased floods and droughts, or changes in farming or water supply, may just push people’s decision past the tipping point,” said David Molden, director of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “For others, there may be no choice but to migrate if a water source is lost, or the damage from floods or droughts is too great.”

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Migration usually begins as a temporary response, but many people have had to relocate permanently or have been displaced. Millions of climate refugees are moving across borders. Human mobility of any kind in the face of the changing climate will have an enduring impact on societies and economies.

“When some members of a family migrate, the country’s dependence on remittance will increase. When entire families migrate, the country will lose a major portion of its labour force. Eventually, dependence on remittance and a shrinking labour force will inhibit the economy,” said Dhakal.

As far back as 1990, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the single greatest impact of climate change would be on human migration. Now, experts are saying there may be 200 million climate refugees worldwide by 2050. By then, 42 million Bangladeshis and 36 million people in coastal India will have to relocate because of rising sea levels.

A recent Oxfam report named climate change-fuelled disasters as the number one driver of internal displacement over the last decade, having forced more than 20 million people to leave their homes annually.

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“If the current development pathway and governance persists, human mobility upheaval will have huge humanitarian and social costs. We in Nepal may not remain immune to this disruption even though we are landlocked,” says water expert Ajaya Dixit.

Following the 2015 Paris Agreement, the executive committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism established a task force on displacement to develop recommendations to avert, minimise and address displacement due to climate change. Agencies, including the International Organisation for Migration, are building support for the second phase of the task force in Madrid this week.

Climate migration is also being discussed in 25 panels and events at COP25. With a rising backlash against migrants and refugees worldwide, it is likely that climate change impacts will cascade, stretching institutional capacity and governance and increasing the cost of adaptation. As displaced people move onto other people’s land, political confrontation and conflict between native populations and migrants can result.

Governments represented in Madrid need to devise policies not just to reduce emissions, but to deal with the political, cultural and economic fallout of climate migration.

Says Dixit: “The climate crisis poses an existential threat. Let us hope human ingenuity and collective wisdom will prevail to begin much needed transformative action.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.