Watershed management and population dynamics in the Middle Hills and Terai, Nepal

It is difficult for management activities to achieve their goals without a proper understanding of the many interrelated physical, biophysical and human factors that act on watersheds. Such understanding is often lacking in Nepal, where there is little evidence-based information for watershed planning. Benchmarks and changes resulting from watershed management interventions are seldom quantified, and the resource endowment and fragility of watersheds are rarely evaluated properly. Time series data for human-induced factors are lacking, and most studies do not separate natural from human causes. This gives rise to several misconceptions, among which the most important for national development is that migration and resettlement of the Middle Hills population to the Terai lowland decreased upstream degradation and improved watershed management at the river basin level.

This policy was started in the late 1960s, through measures to promote the migration of Middle Hills farmers to rehabilitated lowland areas. Landless people were the primary beneficiaries of resettlement. Several projects supported the development of infrastructure and off-farm activities for income generation, and the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties and hybrid domestic animals. Most of these programmes were donor-funded and assisted by Western experts.

The impact of this policy on upstream/downstream linkages in this mountainous country is arguable, however. The mass movement of people to the Terai has reduced population densities in some Middle Hills areas, and prevented the local population from growing beyond the carrying capacity, but the population of the Terai lowlands increased from 3 million in 1961 to 11 million in 2001.

Resettlement of people from the Middle Hills has resulted in half the national population settling in a fragile, flood-prone, unhealthy, tropical rainforest ecosystem. At the same time, decreasing population pressure has not improved soil conversation and water management in the Middle Hills. It is estimated that between 1991 and 2001, migration caused wage labour costs to double in the Middle Hills, while the selling price of rice increased by only 50 percent. There are therefore few incentives for local farmers to maintain their paddy terraces, which are vital for both food security and watershed management.

Devastating landslides and mass wasting in the Middle Hills continue to be blamed on local people overexploiting natural resources, rather than on a combination of natural events and ill-conceived policies. The floods and heavy sedimentation that affect the Terai are attributed to mass wasting in the hills and mountains, with little consideration of other human factors, such as the accumulation of sediments in downstream dam basins and irrigation channels, and intense human interference in riverbank areas. Policies are needed that appraise and manage watersheds in the light of such multi-layered and multisectoral interactions.

Adapted from K. Poudel. 2005. “Watershed management in Nepal: challenges and constraints”. In M. Achouri, L. Tennyson, K. Upadhyay and R. White, eds. Preparing for the next generation of watershed management programmes and projects. Proceedings of the Asian Workshop. Kathmandu, 11 to 13 September 2003. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 5. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Thursday, April 26, 2007