In 2016, Samjong village in Upper Mustang, Nepal, which is at an elevation of 4100 m, had to be relocated to Namashung village in the same region. This was necessitated by acute drought in Samjong that had persisted for almost a decade. While this might be a small case study of relocation, it merits closer analysis to understand the implications of climate change and human mobility. Should this happen on a larger scale, say, across Nepal, given the country’s vulnerability to climate change, climate change-induced migration will demand timely policy intervention.
Droughts: Does Samjong Reflect a Trend?
In Upper Mustang, which is a trans-Himalayan region receiving less than 200 mm of rain annually, erratic rain and snowfall has led to a deepening water crisis. The village of Dhey in the same region is a case-in-point. After facing an acute shortage of water supply for seven years and consequently decreased irrigated land size, a total of twenty three villages had to be relocated to Thangchung in 2009. Similarly, in 2016, eighteen households shifted from Samjong village to Namashung village in search of water. Upper Mustang, where people depend on agriculture and livestock rearing, has been reeling under acute water shortage due to prolonged spells of drought. With their main source of livelihood in jeopardy, the locals are faced with no option but to move.
Whether this is a trend or a standalone incident is hard to gauge as of now owing to the nature of droughts. Droughts occur slowly as compared to other natural hazards. They start without warning. Prolonged periods of no or acute rainfall can bring about crop failure, which in turn increases the vulnerability to food shortage. As a corollary, agrarian families that are directly dependent on the natural environment for their livelihood have to migrate. However, a single event of drought might not trigger migration. Due to this, the link between slow onsetting environmental changes like droughts and migration are not immediately apparent as sporadic droughts do not usually cause a large number of people to leave their living environment. Repeated droughts however can induce forced migration as without water for both drinking and irrigation purposes, people are compelled to move elsewhere as a means of survival.
Based on the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) 2010 report, due to effects of climate change, out of 75 districts in Nepal, 29 are highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Of the 29, 22 are drought-prone. Despite a paucity of data, it is safe to assume that these 22 districts will be the most vulnerable should the significant and consistent increase in temperature projected for Nepal over the coming years translate into drought conditions. In addition there are 12 districts vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs).
Programmes like Local Adaptation Plan of Action (LAPA) have focused on the possibility of drought and have tried to mitigate the effects by encouraging ground water storage in communities, harvesting rain water, and so on. However, the enforced mobility of populations such as in Upper Mustang has not been given attention, despite the fact that it may become a necessity.
Human mobility in the context of climate change and livelihood choices is based on individual capacities to access social and natural resources. Human mobility could manifest itself in the form of evacuation, temporary displacement, cross-border movement, planned relocation and so on. This has consequences of its own. High population density in one area can cause land stress as a disproportionate number of people will be dependent on a small amount of land for cultivation and agricultural purposes. Population stress on resources as a result of migration increases the chances of social conflict. This could manifest in the form increased competition over resources between local inhabitants and newly relocated populations. The relocation of people will influence the ecosystem at their destination by driving up demand for local and natural resources such as land, food, water, and fuel. Also, the relocation destination could already be under some water stress. Thus, more people will only add to the problem, making the site selection imperative.
Although this has so far been seen only in the two above-mentioned villages in Upper Mustang, should relocation become inevitable, government policy must consider factors like potential social tensions, availability of cultivable land, and population density of the area to be relocated. Having key infrastructure in the place of relocation is important; this would include access to clean and drinkable water and water for other purposes, such as irrigation. Unless these factors are considered, arbitrary relocation could potentially cause a backlash – usually in the form marginalisation - instead of providing relief to those relocating.
According to Nepal's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, the country's average temperature is increasing at an average rate of 0.04 degree celsius per year with the trend being much higher in the mountain region. Yet, the relationship between human mobility and climate change remains in the fringe of Nepal's policy discourse.