Water Scarcity Pushing Nepali Youths to Migrate

Based on a case study of selected Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems, this article examines the links among climate change, water scarcity, and migration and suggests a more nuanced examination of the nexus.

Based on a case study of selected Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems, this article examines the links among climate change, water scarcity, and migration and suggests a more nuanced examination of the nexus.

Migration and remittance

Out-migration for jobs has been a new social norm in Nepal; indeed, hundreds of thousands of Nepali youths have migrated to Gulf and Southeast Asian countries for work. The rate of migration began to increase in the early 1990s due to a combination of factors: the lack of in-country jobs, opening up of the international job market, Maoist-led civil war, issuance of passports from districts, limitations of small agriculture, and extreme weather stresses.

In 1993/94, the Government of Nepal (GoN) issued 3,605 permits to the country’s nationals to work abroad (GoN, 2017). By 2021/22, this number had skyrocketed to 630,089 (GoN, 2022). The increasing number of out-migrating youths has resulted in a gradual increase in remittance inflows to the country. Specifically, the Rs. 3.5 million of remittance Nepal received in 1993/94 (GoN, 2018) had increased to Rs. 1,007.31 billion by 2021/22 (GoN, 2023a). This growth represents an increase from 1.5% in 1993 to 22.8% in 2022 in the percentage of the national gross domestic product (GDP) comprised by remittance (The World Bank, 2023a).

This increasing trend in out-migration and the corresponding inflow of remittance outperforms Nepal’s agriculture-based economy, as measured by percentage contribution to GDP. As climate change continues to make weather systems ever more extreme, the new dynamics are likely to generate a ripple through the existing challenges for the country’s agricultural sector, including unreliable irrigation, delayed availability of inputs and fertilizers, poor access to markets, lack of social support, and the propensity of the young to exit out of agriculture. Because there are limited employment opportunities outside of agriculture, smallholders find it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves and embrace out-migration for jobs as one viable coping option.

Increasing trend of outmigration and inflow of remittance has outperformed Nepal’s agriculture-based economy.

From the perspective of adaptation, migration has become a crucial coping strategy throughout the world as climate change impacts increasingly result in the displacement of people. The link between climate change adaptation and migration is a subject of global scholarship (see Caretta et al., 2023); indeed, a significant effort has been made to generate empirical evidence of climate-induced migrations, but evidence of climate-induced migration from Nepal is limited.

Climate change risks

In recent times, increasingly extreme weather events have stressed livelihood and pushing more people to migrate to other places. While migration is now an important adaptive strategy around the world, in Nepal, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change and other global challenges, it is particularly important (ND-Gain, 2023). The country is among the top 10 most affected countries of the globe in terms of the Long-Term Climate Risk Index (Eckstein, Kunzel, & Schafer, 2021). Extreme topography, fragile geology, high climate variability, pervasiveness of climate-related hazards, widespread poverty, and low institutional capacity makes Nepal and its communities especially vulnerable to the increase in climate change hazards. In Nepal, snowstorms, heavy rainfall, floods, landslides, prolonged drought-like conditions, and forest-fires have become everyday occurrences (MOFE, 2021).

The changing climate has resulted in Nepal’s experiencing increasingly intensive monsoons characterized by higher temperatures and greater variability in precipitation (DHM, 2017; Wester, Mishra, Mukherji, & Shrestha, 2019). Nepal’s average temperature increased by 0.056°C from 1974 to 2014 (DHM, 2017) and is estimated that it will have increased by 1.7–3.6°C, by the end of this century (MOFE, 2019). Rising temperatures and increased precipitation variability will directly impact the livelihoods of the majority of Nepali smallholders, agricultural productivity, and, ultimately, the national economy. In Nepal, the average arable landholding is 0.07 ha (The World Bank, 2023b). Though agriculture contributes only 24.7% of Nepal’s GDP (GoN, 2023a), about two-thirds of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Because in-country job opportunities outside agriculture are limited, small farmers may resort to out-migration to find employment.

“The link between climate change and migration has been a subject of global scholarship with significant effort being made in generating empirical evidence of climate-induced migrations.”

Water scarcity in irrigation systems

As acknowledged above, while many global studies have tried to find empirical evidence of the link between climate change and migration, little examination outside a few studies that present anecdotal evidence, has been conducted in Nepal. In particular, there is a dearth of in-depth studies. This article helps address that gap by examining the links among climate change, water scarcity, and migration. It offers a review of the nexus among these factors using a case study of farmer-managed irrigation systems (FMIS) as well as the results of a household survey administered to users of the FMIS which, in particular, asked about their perceptions of climate change and evidence of climate-induced migration.

For this study, I selected fifteen FMIS from five districts of Nepal’s Gandaki River Basin (GRB): Chitwan and Nawalpur districts in the Tarai; Lamjung and Kaski districts in the hills; and Manang district in the mountains (Figure 1). A FMIS is built, operated, and maintained collectively by beneficiary farmers, who formulate their own rules for managing the available water based on local contexts and needs. In Nepal, more than 50% of farming depends on rainfall, and about 70% of the irrigated land is watered by a FMIS (FAO, 2013; Pradhan, 2000). The 17,700 FMIS in Nepal, ranging from small to large (Poudel, 2000), are a major source of water for farming.

Figure 1: Map of the study districts.

The interviewed farmers’ households were divided into head-end, middle, and tail-end sections, based on the locations of their farmland along a canal (Figure 2a and 2b). A household survey of 382 households was conducted (Table 1).

Figure 2a: Schematic of a FMIS in hills (ISET-Nepal). Figure 2b: Household locations along Irrigation canal (Parajuli, Eakin & Chhetri, 2021).

Table 1: Details on the sampled households.

The household survey generated information on migration, remittance, and the respondents’ perceptions of the availability of and investment in farm labor and technology. In addition, respondents’ perceptions of changes in local summer and winter temperatures, the duration of the dry season, snow melting and precipitation, and water variability (the start of monsoon, amount of rainfall, water availability in local sources and irrigation canals and for drinking) were also collected. Furthermore, monthly precipitation and maximum and minimum temperature data collected in weather stations around the study sites were collected from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM). The respondents’ perceptions of climate change were compared to the climate trends to understand whether or not the actual data supported their perceptions.

“At least one member from their family had temporarily migrated abroad or to other parts of the country.”

Table 2 provides the household characteristics of respondents by ecological region and household locations along an irrigation canal. Nearly 70% of respondents reported that at least one member of their family had temporarily migrated abroad or to another part of the country. The survey revealed that 38.5% of those migrants had gone to the Middle East; the second most popular destination was Southeast Asia. Overall, 35.6% of households received remittance. Rates were highest in the Tarai, followed by the hills and mountains.

Table 2: Household characteristics by ecological region and household location (n = 382) (Parajuli et. al., 2021).

Figure 3 shows respondents’ perceptions of changes in temperature, precipitation, and water variability by ecological region and Figure 4 shows the same information by households’ locations along irrigation canals. The majority (83.5%) of respondents perceived that local temperature had increased. Respondents in the mountain district perceived a greater increase in winter temperature than did respondents in the Tarai and hills. Nearly two-thirds (69.7%) of respondents reported that, in their perception, the monsoon was earlier and rainfall less. An analysis of climatic data collected from nearby weather stations supports the respondents’ perceptions of increased temperature and decreased amounts of rainfall (Parajuli et al., 2021).

Figure 3: Perception of climate change by ecological region.

While all households, irrespective of their locations along a canal, perceive an increase in local temperatures, more respondents from a canal’s tail-end section said, too, that they had experienced a late start to the monsoon, less rainfall, less water in canals, and longer dry spells than did respondents along a canal’s head-end or mid sections (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Perceptions of climate change by household location along an irrigation canal.

Since a decrease in water availability means less water flow is available in canals, tail-enders will receive less water. Overuse by upstream users, seepage, and leakage make the scarcity worse. This relative lack of water among tail-end households then puts great pressure on them to explore alternative livelihood opportunities, especially if water becomes so scarce it is impossible for them to farm. While we did see the influence of climate change in increased temperatures and decreased rainfall (both perceptually and in the recorded data), water scarcity was also attributable to the head-end-tail-end dichotomy and other factors.

Uncertainty in water availability

As Table 2 illustrates, we found that a greater proportion of family members from tail-end households (83.3%) had migrated than mid (59.3%) and head-end (64.7%) households. Interviews with tail-end users supported this finding. A woman user of Marath Khola Irrigation System in Chitwan District said, ‘Our farm is at the end of the canal. We do not get water when we want and are flooded when we do not need water. As productivity from farming is uncertain, my husband recently moved abroad for employment’ (Parajuli et al., 2021). My study demonstrates that low water availability in canals and decreasing agriculture productivity from farms does act as a push factor. Tail-end households faced greater water scarcity and were more likely to have members migrating than mid and head-end households.

If there is less water flowing into a canal, less water reaches the tail end. In addition, the nature of a canal, in particular whether it is line or earthen and has high leakage rates, the area irrigated in the head-end, disruptions due to poor maintenance, and type of crop cultivated also affect farm performance and productivity. As the 2021 National Population and Housing Census confirms, the use of water in an irrigation system takes place in an environment of political uncertainty, institutional dysfunction, insecurity, decreases in and low incomes, pursuit of employment opportunities, and, very importantly, aspirations to have a stable income and a better quality of life. According to the census report, 3.93% of the total migrant population attributed decreasing agricultural productivity as one of the reasons for migration while 0.65% identified disaster as a push factor (GoN, 2023b).

“We do not get water when we want, and our land is flooded when we do not need water.”

The evidence provided by this study however, is not sufficient to establish a clear link among climate change, water scarcity and migration. That said, climate change is indeed making rainfall events more erratic and the amount of water in the sources (streams, rivers, etc.) is decreasing. If this trend continues, the performance of existing irrigation systems is likely to continue to decline and small-scale Nepali farmers are likely to increasingly seek alternative livelihood options through migration. A major strategy in addressing climate-induced migration would be creating in-county jobs while investing in improved irrigation and agricultural production systems. At the same time, a more nuanced examination of the links among climate change, water scarcity and migration is needed.


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