Christine – Climate change & health in Nepal

My interests in food and agriculture, rural livelihoods in Asia, and economic development combine into the question: how does climate change affect the long-term livelihoods of poor residents in the rural uplands of Nepal?

Nepal’s landscape is beautiful and harsh, verdant and lush, with rolling hills and soaring, snow-capped mountains, yet also marked by a volatility that, exacerbated by climate change, contributes to rural residents’ deep poverty. Unpredictable environmental changes are reducing agricultural yields for the mountain communities, and high dependence on declining farm income among poor households has been a major contributor to cases of malnutrition.

Nepali farmers have traditionally used seasonal migration to supplement income during off-farm seasons. The link between food and health is one of the most important reasons they cite for seeking this work, with climate change exacerbating the risk of malnutrition. Households rely on sending individuals as labour migrants, creating an alternative stream of income that has had a generally positive effect on rural agriculturally based households. For example, according to a 2004 Foresight Report by the UK Government, over half of the overall 11 per cent decline in poverty in Nepal during the period 1996–2004 was attributed to remittances from these workers.

Mountain-dwelling Nepali are some of the poorest constituents in the country, with the greatest degree of food insecurity. Dependence on remittances is likely to continue to rise, but while migration networks can encourage movement by lowering associated risks and costs, these connections can also degenerate into exploitative arrangements. Compounded with the level of hostility toward migrants by host countries, networks could lead to greater vulnerability. On the other hand, the impacts of climate change may also lead to decreased migration, as households too poor even to finance migration are pushed into deeper poverty without an alternative means of income.

The Nepali Government has been ratifying several international protocols that promote pro-poor development, but these have overlooked adaptive migration. Acknowledging this as a legitimate response to climate change and supporting potential migrants is crucial for the long-term stability and growth of rural livelihoods.

Climate change policies and migration policies are therefore linked, and the extent that climate change affects poor residents will be influenced by policies designed to improve adaptation strategies. A heavier reliance on labour migration is predicted among Nepali mountain-dwellers, but this may not necessarily stabilise livelihoods and food security; indeed, climate change may make things worse. Good governance and strong policies are key ways that migration can be more fully harnessed as an adaptation strategy, and alleviation of poverty in Nepal’s uplands made more attainable.

I am acutely aware that my research was carried out within a sanitised environment using secondary material. This summer, however, kicks off my contextual learning: I will be working at a start-up in Cambridge that focuses on global public health challenges. The brilliant serendipity is that one of our partners is a well-established and respected NGO in Nepal, working to improve rural health through house-to-house visits and free care in clinics. Through this partnership, my research question will not only continue, but deepen and evolve.