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The Country of Nepal

by J.B. Abbington


The kingdom of Nepal is a landlocked country which lies along the southern slopes of the Himalaya Mountains, with India on its southern, eastern, and western borders, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the Peoples' Republic of China to the north. The country has a land area of 147, 180km2, being 800km from east to west, and varying from 144km to 240km north to south, between longitudes 80°–88°E and latitudes 26°–31°N. Within Nepal's borders lie some of the most deeply incised and geologically active regions in the world, and over 70% of the country is covered by mountains of varying altitude.

Three main physical regions can be defined based broadly upon altitude. To the south of the country is the Terai which is low, 50–100masl, and is a northern extension of the Gangetic Plains of India. The topography of the area is flat, and the soils are generally very fertile, consisting of alluvial deposits carried down in the rivers from the hills and mountains to the north. This zone ranges from 25–32km in width.

Rising from the Terai plains and following an east/west alignment, are two ranges of hills generally referred to as the “Mid-hills” which range in altitude from 1300–2500masl and which are known as the Siwalik (or Churia) Hills at lower altitudes and the Mahabharat Lekh range at higher elevations. Between the Mahabharat Lekh and the high Himalayas are another series of mountains commonly referred to as the “High-hills” which cover the elevations from 2500–5000masl, these being a transitional zone and aligned generally north/south as a result of the rivers draining through them from the high Himalayas. To the north of these High-hills are the Himalayas proper, again aligned east/west, which include the highest mountains in the world and range from 5000–8800masl. These last two zones are either only sparsely inhabited, or are totally uninhabited, with most land above 5500m being permanently snowbound.

It follows, that the climate and therefore the natural environment of the country are influenced by two factors. First, Nepal is situated in sub-tropical latitudes so that temperatures at low altitudes are inherently warm to hot. Superimposed upon, and modifying this potentially subtropical climate are both the effects of altitude and aspect, which result in great diversity of microclimatic conditions with respect to temperature and rainfall, so that the natural environment can show great variation within a particular location.

The climate of the Terai is subtropical, with the natural seasons being determined by the monsoon rains which affect the entire Indian subcontinent. As the low to mid-hills (1300–2500masl) are encountered, the climate is classified as warm temperate, and above this, between 2500 and 4500masl cool-temperate. The high hills (2500 to 5500m), comprise an alpine zone, while above 5500m, the temperature is almost always below freezing point.

Rainfall varies from as little as 500mm per annum in the rainshadow areas to the north of the high Himalayas to over 5000mm in areas to the south of some of the major Himalayan massifs. For most of the country average rainfall lies between 900mm and 1900mm per annum, becoming progressively drier from the east to the west. The greater part of this rain falls during the monsoon between the middle of June and the end of September.

Under such conditions of climatic variability there is a wide diversity of climax vegetation. Where the climate is subtropical on the Terai and in the lower hills, then tropical forest trees such as khair (Acacia catechu), sissoo (Dalbergia sissoo), and sal (Shorea robusta) are the dominant species. In the mid-hills, deciduous trees such as poplars (Populus spp.), oaks (Quercus spp.), walnut (Juglans regia) and larch (Larix spp.) in association with evergreens such as pines (Pinus spp.) and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) predominate. Between 3000–4000m asl, rhododendron, mixed with birch (Betula spp.) and fir trees occur, while the zone below the timber line of the high mountains contains spruce, fir, cypress, juniper and birch. Alpine pasture occurs at high altitude below the permanent snowline (4500–5000m asl) and has traditionally afforded valuable grazing land during the summer monsoon months.

At present, about one third of the country is still covered by natural forest, but most of this is confined to the less accessible slopes of hills and mountains. On the Terai, there has been severe overexploitation of natural sal woodland leading to its degradation and consequent loss of land use potential, through physical erosion of the soil, and a decline in its fertility.

In geological terms, Nepal is still a young country, and the theory of plate tectonics asserts that the Indian subcontinent is still moving northwards with the result that the Himalaya Mountains are still rising. The hills and mountains abutting the Himalayan Massif are still geologically active, and regular earthquakes of considerable magnitude are a feature of the country. The mountain and hill slopes are therefore steep and inherently unstable. Even without human intervention, landslides and other mass movements of soil are frequent, particularly during the monsoon season, when rainwater water percolates down to the bedrock, and acts as an effective lubricant.

Population and Demography

Nepal has been populated through numerous migrations from the surrounding areas over many centuries, but two main types of people predominate, those of Tibeto-Burman origin, and the Indo-Nepalese from what is now Northern India. There has been considerable mixing of these two groups, but it is still apparent that in general, the majority of people in the hill and mountain derive from the former group, while those of the low hills and the Terai from the latter. These origins are important in determining the ethnic, social and religious status of the people concerned, the Indo-Nepalese being predominantly Hindu, and the hill and mountain people being influenced by Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The 1991 census has reported that the population of Nepal now numbers 18.4 million, of which one third live on the Terai, and the remainder in the hills and mountains.

The main social groups within the western regions of Nepal are the Bhramin who occupy the lower hill areas, with the Gurung and the Magar communities occupying the land at higher altitudes. In the eastern regions, the Limbu, Rai, Sunwar and Tamang are the predominant groups. The original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars, are of uncertain origin, belonging to none of the groups described above. The diversity of ethnic group, caste and religious belief exerts a profound effect upon the attitude adopted towards the keeping and rearing of animals, and to the way in which livestock are used and exploited within the agricultural systems in the country.

This diversity of peoples is accompanied by an equally varied array of languages, which hinders communication and tends to promote regionalism, even though there is a common official language, Nepali.

Politically and administratively, Nepal is divided into five development regions, the Eastern, Central, Western, Mid-Western and Far-Western. Each Region is subdivided into Zones, the number of which varies with region, and the smallest political unit of area within the country is now termed the Village Development Committee.

Fig. 1: Human population by physiographic region.

Fig. 1

Over the next twenty years, population is expected to increase to nearly 27,000,000. Figure 1 shows that the majority of the people at present live in the Terai and the mid-hill areas, and that these will continue to be the main regions of population growth. Figure 2 shows that population increases from the west to the east of the country.

Fig. 2: Human population by administrative region

Fig. 2

Agricultural Systems:

Present day smallholder agriculture in the hills of Nepal has changed little from that developed over the centuries. It is essentially subsistence oriented, and its evolution and sustainability have been based upon human experience gained over many generations of combatting the harsh prevailing agro-climatic conditions. It involves highly complex interactions and interdependence between crops, livestock and forest resources. Over the years, the need to develop a sustainable system of growing food crops to support human existence, on the steep slopes of mountainsides has first led to the physical conservation of soil through construction of extensive networks of terraces, and second to the maintenance of soil fertility through use of organic matter both in the form of animal dung/compost mixtures, and green manuring crops. The forest is the foundation upon which the whole sustainability of hill agriculture is based. It provides raw materials in the form of forage and fodder for animal feed, leaf litter for both animal bedding and composting with dung to provide manure, and fuelwood and timber resources for heating, cooking, and construction.

Depending upon altitude, and the availability of water for irrigation so crops and cropping patterns vary, and the land is used to a greater or lesser intensity. Subedi et al (1989) have described cropping patterns in relation to traditional methods used for maintaining soil fertility in the hills of Western Nepal. The primary distinction of land use is between khet, and bari, with the former being irrigated and the latter rainfed. Up to 900m asl, it is possible to produce three crops per year on khetland, and this system is usually based upon two crops of rice and one of winter wheat. From 900–1800m asl two crops per year are grown, one being of rice and the second again a winter crop of wheat or vegetables. Above 1800 metres, it is usual to find only one crop grown and generally this is a rainfed crop. However, these crop sequences are not rigidly followed, and land is often left fallow during winter. On bariland, cropping patterns involve a maize and finger millet relay system as the basis, and the degree to which these two are intercropped again depends upon altitude. Bariland is normally left fallow during the dry winter months. These systems are described in more detail in subsequent chapters.

Within the overall hillfarm enterprise, the role of livestock is not only to provide milk and meat for human sustenance, but a major contribution is the maintenance of soil fertility, through production of organic manure from dung and dung/compost mixtures. In addition, oxen supply the draught power for land preparation. In common with smallholder farming elsewhere, little is wasted, and the role of crop residues is crucial to the wellbeing of livestock productivity during the winter months. During wintertime, the large ruminants are permitted either to roam freely over the land, or are deliberately tethered on terraces for set periods of time, being fed with crop residues such as rice straw, and with fodder cut and transported from the forest. The manure is thus deposited directly back onto the land. This arrangement also applies to small ruminants, and the supply of urine and manure from sheep and goat flocks is particularly valued, and is a major economic factor for continuing the traditional transhumance system for these animals.

Until relatively recently, this represented an effective closed system between the extraction of soil nutrients by arable crops, and the maintenance of soil fertility with animal manure, and was sustainable in the longer term. Where local soil fertility problems arose, there was still sufficient land available for new development, and overutilised terraces could be abandoned for a period of time to revert to natural vegetation and regain their former fertility status.

It has recently become apparent that the traditional agricultural systems, are no longer sustainable, with both human and livestock population densities exerting a pressure upon the land that is unsupportable. Enke (1971, cited by Balogun et al, 1988) noted that “The complex interaction of wood for fuel, cattle for manure and draught, and manured terraces for rice, etc., is becoming increasingly vulnerable to overcrowding of the Hill areas”. Balogun et al (1988) reported that by 1985, only five of the fifty-five hill and mountain districts in Nepal were self-sufficient in food grains. Hill farmers' efforts to increase agricultural production to meet their requirements for basic survival, have exacerbated an already critical situation, and are leading to further intensification of the downward spiral of decline in soil fertility and environmental degradation, as more marginal areas are brought into cultivation, and forests are overexploited to support livestock and humans alike.


Balogun, P.A.K., Gurung, G.B., and Sthapit, B.R. (1988). An approach to sustainable agricultural research in the hills of Nepal - The experience of Lumle Agricultural Centre. LAC Technical Paper 88/21. Lumle Agricultural Centre, Kaski, Nepal.

Enke, S. (1971). Projected costs and benefits of population control, in Population and Development, Kirtipur, Kathmandu: CEDA Study Series, Seminar Paper No. 2, pp. 17–20 (cited by Balogun et al, 1988).

Master Plan for the Forestry Sector, Nepal (1988). His Majesty's Government of Nepal/Asian Development Bank/FINNIDA.

Subedi, K.D., Gurung, G.B., Paudel, D.R.S., Gurung, K.J., Gurung, D.B., and Gurung, J.B. (1989). Traditional methods of maintaining soil fertility in the mid and high hills (1200–2100m asl) of the Western Development Region of Nepal. Problems and Potentials. LAC Working Paper 3/89. Lumle Agricultural Centre, Kaski, Nepal.

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