Shifting mobility patterns –

environmental change and migration to and from the Nepali plains

Climate Change and Human Mobility Workshop
26 - 27 March 2015
Fenner School of Environment and Society,
The Australian National University, Canberra

Asheshwor Shrestha,
PhD Candidate,

Dr. Douglas Bardsley,
Senior Lecturer,

Prof. Graeme Hugo
ARC Australian Professorial Fellow,

Geography, Environment & Population,
The University of Adelaide


  1. Introduction
  2. Exposure to agricultural risks
  3. Perception and adaptation to climate change
  4. Human mobility and resilience in the Nepali plains (the Tarai)
  5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

  • Ongoing PhD project
    • Field questionnaire survey (September 2013 - March 2014)
    • Open-ended interviews (November 2013 - March 2014)
    • Climate data analysis using daily records from 1970-2012 from 10 stations
  • Explore linkages between environmental change and subsequent livelihood decisions by households

Study locations

Study sites

Dhangadhi, Far-west Nepal
Damak, East Nepal

Background on Nepali plains - the Tarai

  • Tarai has been a destination of in-migrants moving from the hills since the 1960s (Gurung, 1989; Kansakar, 1985)
  • Tarai has also witnessed massive socio-ecological change
    • Forest clearing and malaria eradication
    • Agricultural extensification to feed the nation
    • Urbanization
    • Tarai is also seen as a region neglected by the central government (Majumdar, 2006); marginalized communities have been left out of the decision making process in resource management including community forestry (Gauli & Rishi, 2004)
    • Shares open border with India

Background on Nepali plains - the Tarai

Historic internal migration pattern in Damak

Historic internal migration pattern based on prior residence
Map usage subject to Google Maps API Terms of Service (

Household characteristics

Damak Dhangadhi
Sample households 143 151
Total households 3,989 4,624
Total population in selected wards 15,909 25,726
Mean age: respondents; respondents' family 45.15; 34.11 39.6; 25.62
Gender distribution M 75.5%; F 24.5% M 43.0%; F 57.0%
Livestock ownership 68.53% 96.69%
Involvement in agriculture 77.62% 90.07%
HH with migrant worker 49.65% 56.28%
HH w/ flood experience 49.65% 56.29%
HH's median land area in sq. m. 6,773 4,741
Median household size 5 6
Indigenous % 17 25

2. Exposure to agricultural risks

  • High inter-annual variability in rainfall - floods and droughts
  • Mediocre agricultural infrastructure

Rainfall variability

Study sites

Inter-annual variability in mean monthly rainfall in Tarahara Station (1971 - 2012 aggregate)

Trends in rainfall

Study sites

Trend in annual total precipitation (PREPTOT) in three stations
For Nepalgunj RO, Mann Kendall p = 0.0108, Kendall's Tau =-0.3084 , Sen's slope = -15.8

Agricultural infrastructure

  • Irrigation system: only small percentage with access to canals, and the structure has not been properly maintained
  • Electricity: supply is not constant, up to 18 hours per day load shedding
  • Cost barrier: cost of pump, cost of bore hole, cost of fuel, cost of pipe and cost of labour
  • Only 3 respondents out of 294 had started harvesting a new crop in the last 5 years

Flash floods

  • Sediment deposit on the field was the most reported problem from floods
  • No mechanism for compensation when land is lost
  • Only 18 respondents had received any form of relief
  • No insurance mechanism
Signage - what to do in case of flood?

3. Perception and adaptation

  • Perception of climate change
  • Perception of trends in agricultural output
  • In-situ adaptation examples

Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables -  all variables

Perception of changes in eleven climatic variables

Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

In Damak, the perceptions were significantly related to respondents' prior experience with flood χ2(2, N = 143) = 6.6206, p = 0.04

Perception of trends in agricultural output

Perception of change in agricultural yield

The respones were not significantly related with respondents' prior experience with flood or, with respondents' family having a migrant member or not

Coping and adaptation

"Nothing can be done."
(6 respondents in questionnaire survey)

"When the field was dry, land owner accused me of not working hard enough. Pump set is not available when needed."
(female-25 from Dhangadhi, 3 Feb 2014)

"Rainfall is the best [for paddy]. Pumped water do not contain vitamins."
(female-33 from Dhangadhi, 3 Feb 2014)

In-situ adaptation examples

  • Farming of high value crops along the river banks when it is dry
    • Requires constant safeguard
    • No legal entitlement
    • Prone to flooding
Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

In-situ adaptation examples

  • Procuring fodder and firewood
    • Forests in the Tarai are highly protected now compared to in the past when it used to be a common pool resource
    • Not all families can afford the payment and have resorted to fetching firewood from across the border
    • During flooding period, locals collect trees and branches brought by the flood.
Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

In-situ adaptation examples

  • Hiring paid labour for agriculture
    • Labour from outside of the family needed
    • Upfront investment for planting, transplanting and harvesting labour
Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables Perception of impact from changes in climatic variables

4. Human mobility and resilience in the Tarai

  • Contemporary destinations
  • Demographics
  • Migrant households' narratives
  • Migration characteristics

Contemporary destinations for migrant workers

Migrants' destination regions based on field survey

Destination regions of migrant members from surveyed households
one arc represents one migrant from surveyed households

Migrant Households' narratives

  • Economic reasons - inadequate income from local jobs
  • Adhiya system of land tenure by which the poor or the landless use farmlands and pay half of the produce in return
  • Farm income does not enable households to accure assets, remittance on the otherhand, if successful yields much higher earnings

Choice of destinations of migrants from surveyed households

Damak Dhangadhi
India 3 101
Middle East 60 5
Internal (within Nepal) 5 18
South East Asia 32 7
Other 6 1

Migrants' age, education and years in foreign employment

Graph: Migrants' household land ownership by destination region

SE Asia, especially Malaysia has become the destination of choice for most migrants from the Tarai

Formal education of migrants

Graph: Migrants' household land ownership by destination region

Migrants to new international destinations have higher median education

Remittances by destination

Graph: Remittance received by destination region

Remitances from new international destinations are significantly more than from traditional destinations. National GPD per capita for 2013 was USD 694 (World Bank, 2014)


  • There is no significant decline in cultivation in migrants' households as the remaining members continute farming and livestock practice
  • Labour migration opportunities remain the most important factor in household decision making. Low winter rainfall and failure of irrigation systems prompted some farmer to leave land fallow during the winter of 2013/14
  • Migrants going to India and the Middle East have significantly lower formal education compared to internal migrants and migrants going to new destinations in SE Asia. This agrees with findings from Findlay (2011) and Massey et al. (1993)


  • The popularity of international destinations disagrees with the theories that most of the environmental change initiated movements will be within national/regional boundaries (Findlay, 2011) perhaps because to the established international networks and any pressure due to environmental change simply reinforces these.
  • Since the use of remittances for basic household activities and the fact that remittance income is disproportionately larger than income made at home, the trend in foreign employment is expected to continue

5. Conclusion

  • Although a deterministic environmental change - migration relationship was not found, the case studies qualifies the value of environmental variables in migration decision making at the household level
  • This calls for rethinking adaptation in terms of the extent of adjustment that the societal system will change to become resilient (Bardsley, 2014) and begs inclusion of migration in adaptation policies (Black et al., 2011; Black, Kniveton & Schmidt-Verkerk, 2011)
  • By tapping on the trans-local network, the resilience of migrants' household and the community is expected to be strengthened


Questions / comments


 Slides pdf: 

 Press key for references, acknowledements and attributions 


  • Bardsley, D. K. 2014, 'Limits to adaptation or a second modernity? Responses to climate change risk in the context of failing socio-ecosystems, Environmental Development & Sustainability, DIO 10.1007/s10668-014-9541-x
  • Black, R, Bennett, SRG, Thomas, SM & Beddington, JR 2011, 'Migration as adaptation', Nature Climate Change, vol. 478. Black, R, Kniveton, D & Schmidt-Verkerk, K 2011, 'Migration and climate change: towards and integrated assessment of sensitivity', Environment and Planning A, vol. 73, pp. 431-450.
  • Findlay, AM 2011, 'Migrant destinations in an era of environmental change', Global Environmental Change, vol. 2011.
  • Gauli, K & Rishi, P 2004, 'Do the marginalised class really participate in community forestry? A case study from western Terai region of Nepal', Forests Trees and Livelihoods, vol. 14, no. 2-4
  • Gurung, H. (1989). Regional Patterns of Migration in Nepal. Hawaii, USA: East-West Center.
  • Kansakar, V. B. S. (1985). Land resettlement policy as a population distribution strategy in Nepal. In L. A. Kosinski & K. M. Elahi (Eds.), Population redistribution and development in South Asia. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publisihing Company.
  • Karmacharya, J 2010, Exploring daily rainfall data to investigate evidence of climate change in Kathmandu Valley and its implication in rice farming in the area, Ministry of Agriculture, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • Majumdar, M 2006, 'धनी ठाऊँ, गरिब अर्थतन्त्र (Rich place, poor economy)', in M Mainali & B Thapa (eds), मधेस: समस्या र संभावना (Madhesh: challanges and opportunities), Social Science Baha, Himal Association, Lalitpur, Nepal, pp. 29-40.
  • Massey, DS, Arango, J, Hugo, G, Kouaouci, A, Pellegrino, A & Taylor, JE 1993, 'Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal', Population Council, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 431-466.
  • World Bank 2014, 'World Bank development indicators', URL: accessed 3-08-2014


  • Field-work and partial workshop travel funding from Department of Geography, Environment & Population, The University of Adelaide
  • Partial workshop travel funding from Australian National University, Climate Change Institute
  • Field research assistants Shreekrishna Chaudhary and Sujan Ranjitkar
  • Local contact persons - Umesh Dhimal, Tejpal Dhimal, Laxmi Niraula and Kanchan Ojha
  • Special thanks to Damak Municipality, Dhangadhi Municipality, Mercycorps Nepal, ADF Nepal Pvt. Ltd., and Neeraj Dangol