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Country profile - Nepal


Home to eight of the world's ten highest mountains, archaeological evidence suggests that people have lived in Nepal's northern mountainous region for over 9,000 years. But landlocked between India and China, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Plagued by years of civil strife and crippled by the current global economic crisis, the country is struggling to lift one-third of its population of 28 million people above the poverty line.

Although previously a monarchy, a decade of civil war, instigated by Maoist rebels, left more than 100,000 people displaced and many thousands dead. A peace accord was finally signed in 2006 and, after elections in 2008, the monarchy was abolished and Nepal became the world's youngest republic.

Farming: three-way split

Agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the economy, providing livelihoods for over 80 per cent of the population and generating around one-third of GDP. Nepal's landscape and agricultural production is defined by three contrasting climatic zones, running in parallel east to west. The sub-tropical lowlands of the Terai, bordering India, have the best agricultural potential. Rice is the main crop but pulses, wheat, barley and oilseeds are also grown, as well as some jute, tobacco, indigo and opium.

In the densely populated temperate hill regions, rice and maize are grown in the summer season, with wheat, barley and vegetables in winter. Mustard, grown for its oil and used in cooking, is another important crop. Higher still, in the mountains of the sparsely populated north, crops are limited to potatoes, barley and buckwheat, with yaks providing meat, milk and wool.

Food and water shortage

Rice, pulses, wheat and barley are just some of the crops grown on the sloping hills of the Terai (Georgina Smith)
Rice, pulses, wheat and barley are just some of the crops grown on the sloping hills of the Terai
Georgina Smith

Despite the agricultural potential of the Terai and the mid-hills, population growth has outstripped agricultural output in recent years. With changes in the climate and the impact of the recent food and financial crises, aid agencies warn that much of the population is food insecure. Chronic malnutrition in children is estimated to be almost 50 per cent, worse in mountain regions, and is amongst the highest in Asia. The worst winter drought for 40 years in 2008/9 has exacerbated the plight of rural households, with many forced to sell land to survive.

Whilst Nepal does not significantly contribute to global CO2 emissions, its fragile ecosystems are suffering the consequences of climate change. Environmentalists warn that accelerating glacier melt in mountainous regions could lead to increased flooding and will also reduce the seasonal supply of water to rivers as glaciers shrink. This could have grave consequences for the estimated 1.5 billion people dependent on water resources from the Himalayas, including many beyond Nepal's borders in Pakistan, Myanmar, India and China. Greater monitoring of Nepal's glaciers, say experts, would allow for improved early warning systems and would alert policy-makers to the vulnerabilities of people living in mountainous regions.

Community resource management

Deforestation is another major challenge for Nepal. Over the last fifty years, Nepal's natural forest cover has been halved as its population has doubled. Erosion of topsoil and damage to watersheds has also impacted on crop yields. Despite this, Nepal's forest, if properly managed, represents one of its most important natural resources, both for timber and other forest products. Community forest management has proved a successful way of helping local people derive income from the forest, whilst preventing further deforestation. Around 13,000 community groups now collectively manage over 1.6 million hectares of forest across the country.

Nepal's forest is one of its most important natural resources (Georgina Smith)
Nepal's forest is one of its most important natural resources
Georgina Smith

Nepal's abundant water resources are home to over 180 fish species, which are an important source of income and protein for some 400,000 fisherfolk. However, despite the abundance of water, Nepal's irrigation systems have traditionally been plagued by poor service and performance. Support of community-based water user associations has helped to improve agricultural production in some areas but many poor farmers remain dependant on rainfall, which is becoming increasingly irregular and unpredictable.

Adapting to change

With warmer winters and erratic rains, some farmers have switched from growing wheat and rice to vegetables, which can be grown in less time than traditional grain crops, allowing two or three crops each year and generating more income. Cultivation of fruit such as bananas, is another alternative. Greater support of these efforts in the form of loans, access to seeds, and technical advice on crop management and water harvesting, would allow more rural people to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

However, government ministries lack both resources and technical capacity. A National Adaptation Programme for climate change has been started, including a youth summit in Kathmandu, but the potential impact of climate change on agriculture and the poor is not well understood, particularly at district level. And, despite the success of some small initiatives, Nepal's government has a steep hill to climb if poverty is not to increase further, particularly for the poor living in the remotest and most vulnerable areas.

Statistical information
  • Country: Nepal
  • Capital: Kathmandu
  • Area: 147,181 sq km
  • Population: 28,563,377 (July 2009 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 1.2% (2009 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 65.5 years
  • Ethnic groups: Chhettri 15.5%, Brahman-Hill 12.5%, Magar 7%, Tharu 6.6%, Tamang 5.5%, Newar 5.4%, Muslim 4.2%, Kami 3.9%, Yadav 3.9%, other 32.7%, unspecified 2.8% (2001 census)
  • Languages: Nepali 47.8%, Maithali 12.1%, Bhojpuri 7.4%, Tharu (Dagaura/Rana) 5.8%, Tamang 5.1%, Newar 3.6%, Magar 3.3%, Awadhi 2.4%, other 10%, unspecified 2.5% (2001 census)
  • Inflation: 7.7% (2008 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$31 billion (2008 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$1,100 (2008 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 32.5%; industry: 16.6%; services: 50.9% (2008 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 16.07%; permanent crops: 0.85%; other: 83.08% (2005)
  • Major industries: tourism, carpets, textiles; small rice, jute, sugar, and oilseed mills; cigarettes, cement and brick production
  • Agricultural products: pulses, rice, corn, wheat, sugarcane, jute, root crops; milk, water buffalo meat
  • Natural resources: quartz, water, timber, hydropower, scenic beauty, small deposits of lignite, copper, cobalt, iron ore
  • Export commodities: clothing, carpets, leather goods, jute goods, pulses, grain
  • Export partners: India 69.3%, US 8.8%, Germany 4.1% (2007)

With contributions from: Georgina Smith

Date published: September 2009


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