Plight of a Region
Despite abundant natural resources, Karnali in Nepal offers no sign of development. With the vagaries of climate change, the region is suffering from a multitude of problems.
As noted by Slok Gyawali, a columnist in the Earth Island Journal, Tashi Lama, a 52 year old farmer from Karnali region in Nepal, does not know much about jalavauparivartan (climate change), but he is wary of the misfortunes the acute drought has brought to Nepal. In the farmer’s words: “I don’t know about jalavauparivartan, but one should have come a few months earlier to see the worst effects of the drought.” He was referring to the drought Nepal, especially the Karnali region, is facing in 30 years. There has been no rain in Karnali since July 2015. Food insecurity coupled with no infrastructure development and unemployment is worsening the inhabitants’ lives. And, unfortunately, it is not the end of a tear-jerking tale of the region which is exposed to a multitude
of trials and tribulations.
Being one of the fourteen zones in Nepal, Karnali is a far-flung area lying in the mid-west development region of the country, bordering Tibet. It is the largest and the poorest zone of Nepal which occupies 15% of the country’s total area and a population of around 400,000. Having a beautiful natural landscape with snow-covered mountains from the Himalayan range, Karnali is the site of two beautiful lakes, Rara and Phoksundo, which attract tourists in large numbers. The Phoksundo Lake, the largest lake in Nepal, is the jewel in the crown of Shay Phoksundo National Park which is the largest national park in Nepal and is famous for snow leopards.
The region is blessed with abundant and diverse flora and fauna. The snow leopard, the one-horned rhinoceros, deer, elephants, the Royal Bengal Tiger and over 230 other species of mammals can be found in the Karnali region, mostly in the Humla and Dolpa districts. Different species of Indian and Burmese pythons, king cobra, alligators, mash mugger crocodiles and 370 species of birds have also been recorded there. The Karnali River, originating from Tibet, is the longest river in Nepal, providing a habitat to the Himalayan trout, freshwater dolphin, giant catfish and Golden Mahseer fish. The Karnali region produces valuable medicinal herbs such as Cordyceps Sinesis, Gucci mushrooms, Dactylorhiza Hatagirea, etc. which are used in making herbal medicines.
Despite abundant natural resources, Karnali offers no sign of economic development. Agriculture, animal husbandry and the cottage industry make up virtually all of Karnali’s economy. The national survey of 2004 shows that the Karnali zone is suffering from severe poverty in comparison to other zones of the country. The Central Bureau of Statistics revealed in 2011 that unemployment in the region is the vital cause of underdevelopment and is responsible for reducing the annual growth rate by 1.3%. Te zone’s economy is moving towards ruination as the majority of its residents live in destitute conditions. Political instability, traditional technology, obsolete means of production, an expanding population and the increasing rate of exodus of migrants to India through a porous border to seek employment are deteriorating the region’s economic landscape.
The overall human development in Nepal is grave as it was ranked at 145 on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2014. Its HDI score was 0.458 which was the least among the SAARC countries, apart from Afghanistan. Keeping Nepal’s performance on HDI in mind, one can size up the poor human development level in the remotest regions of the country. According to the United Nations Development Program’s report in 2011, Karnali is the least human developed region in Nepal due to low life expectancy, illiteracy and a dearth of medical facilities. One of its districts, Mugu, has a life expectancy of 37 years, one of the lowest in the world, whereas it is 46 years in Karnali, in general. The female literacy rate in Karnali is a mere 10% against 34% at the national level. Its two districts, Humla and Mugu, have the lowest literacy rate of 28%. Health care is very poor with most medical facilities lacking medicines and doctors. Acute malnutrition is 8% to 14% while severe malnutrition is 2.5% to 9%. Anemia in 5 year old children ranges from 36% to 53% whereas it is at up to 33% in women of 15-20 years of age.
Climate abnormality has had serious repercussions for the dwellers of Karnali who are in a constant state of starvation. The region whose agriculture is solely dependent on ponds, which are filled by rain water, has been expecting rain since July 2015 – resulting in the worst drought in 40 years. The 2015 earthquake, the Indian embargo and now the drought have reduced the region’s agricultural yield by 50%. In Dolpa alone, 90% of the cultivable land is left barren and 80% of the winter crops have not been grown yet. Lotai Lama, a farmer in Humla district, says, “We do not even know if we will have two meals a day and whether we will live or die.” Food insecurity has posed a serious threat to the people’s chances of living as they are forced to even sell their kitchen utensils to buy food. About two thirds of the population is either severely or moderately food insecure.
It is a sad fact that the Karnali people do not have access to the political mechanism in the country. They are deprived of their right to elect representatives who would raise their voice in the constituent assembly. This exclusion has impaired the already spoiled relations between Kathmandu and the Karnali region. The latter believes its natural resources are being exploited by the former. A policy of keeping the Karnali people at bay has ignited the flare of separatism in the region. It is depicted in the support the Karnali people get from the Maoists who demand a separate homeland in the autonomous regions in the west of the country.
The plight of the Karnali region and its people is a tale of catastrophe, absence of pro-activism, negligence of superior authorities and lack of political wisdom. The region is blessed with immense beauty but its resources are at the verge of depletion. The administration in Kathmandu needs to realize the gravity of the situation regarding the Karnali region. The agriculture minister of Nepal has said: “We know that the Karnali region suffers from the vicious circle of poverty and we will not let anybody starve.” Unfortunately, thus is not true as the government’s purportedly noble intentions are not being translated into action. The government needs to adopt a multi-pronged approach in coping with the challenges. It must empower the people of Karnali through large-scale employment generation which will help curtail the desperate poverty conditions. A better level of governance must emanate from the centre so that through judicious political representation, the people’s long-standing grievances can be attended to more effectively.