Climate Change-Labor Migration-Security Nexus in Nepal

Author: Prakash Bhattarai, PhD.


Numerous studies have exhibited the multidimensional impacts of climate change on the places, species, and human’s socio-economic and cultural activities. Climate change symptoms such as the increased frequency of extreme weather events, dry days, and increased temperature have often been attributed to the reduction of agriculture production, spread of disease and famine, drought and crop failure, food insecurity, strained water resources, loss of forests and biodiversity, as well as damaging infrastructures. Climate change events have also been considered for intensifying the competition for food, water, and energy, in areas where such resources are already limited to the people and communities. Several other studies suggest increased competition and conflict over natural resources, loss of livelihoods, frequency of climate related disasters, forced migration, and displacement as core consequences of climate change. A report titled “A New Climate for Peace” published in June 2015 and commissioned by G-7 foreign ministries have indicated that intended and unintended effects of climate change has potential to increase fragility risks in several countries and communities hard hit my climate crisis. Likewise, the accelerated pace of global warming caused by the climate crisis also has a direct impact on the physical and mental health, occupational safety, productivity, and earning capacity of workers. A 2019 ILO report highlights that 80 million permanent jobs around the world could be lost due to extreme heat by 2030. It is also projected that compounded socio-economic and environmental challenges, such as reduced income of people, increased competition for accessing resources, and continuous disaster and displacement events, emerged due to climate change can be a potential source of conflicts and insecurity from local to the global level. Such incidents may also give birth to different extremist groups with large-scale recruitment and implantation.

The Nepali Context

According to the recently published 2021 census report of Nepal, 0.7 percent of the total migrant population have reported the reason for migration is natural disaster and another 3.9 percent have indicated agricultural factors as the reason for migration. Over the last few decades, there have been increases in instances of extreme weather and natural disasters that experts have attributed to climate change, including floods, landslides, glacier outbursts, droughts, and dry spells. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has suggested that Nepal faces the prospect of losing 2.2 percent of its annual GDP due to climate change impacts by 2050. The Nepal government has singled out the country’s energy sector, agriculture, water resources, forestry, biodiversity, and health sectors as the most at risk in its official communications. In the year 2022 itself, nearly 245 disaster events reported and 32,000 new displacement are recorded by the Government of Nepal. One of the ADB report projects that on average 96,000 people could be displaced in any given year in the future by earthquakes and riverine floods. Climate change and low levels of human development have increased the risk of disaster displacement. Likewise, recently published National Planning Commission report shows that approximately 2.24 percent of total land where Mountain regions accounted 1.64 percent, Hill 1.90 percent and Terai 2.59 percent were made uncultivable due to flooding or soil erosion. This low agricultural productivity and food losses forces people, especially agro-based people to search for new sources of agricultural land, water and food. According to the Global Risk Index 2021, Nepal ranks in the 10th position in terms of climate induced fatalities. Some other studies have ranked Nepal as the fourth most climate-change vulnerable country in the world. Every year, climate change has triggered internal displacement or forced mass migration in Nepal. 

As the data and previous studies clearly indicate a strong linkage between climate change and migration and one of the studies conducted by Centre for Social Change (CSC) in 2022 have defined this as proportional heterogenous relationship between these two. Means, the larger the magnitude of environmental degradation, the larger the corresponding effect observed in human mobility.

Photo by: Anish Khatri

Over the last few decades, Nepal has recorded large surges in volumes of domestic, cross-border, and international migration. Studies have attributed these unprecedented increases to several factors, including economic liberalization, rise of affordable travel, and growing transnational governance opening the doors to supportive policies and treaties, especially among migrant workers seeking employment in urban centers within Nepal and Malaysia/Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Labor migration in Nepal is often interpreted as consequences of the conflict, poverty, underdevelopment and the lack of livelihood opportunities, in particular, in rural and remote parts of Nepal. This narrative is true to the most extent. However, this cannot be considered as absolute reasons when Nepal is slowly and steadily experiencing the impact of climate change. For instance, agriculture activities from mountain to Terai belt is becoming a hard-hit sector due to extreme weather events. Uncertain income and productivity due to climate change and extreme weather events have discouraged people to continue agriculture as a core profession. Thus, there is a rapid shift of labor force from agriculture to non-agriculture sector. Extreme weather events are also forcing thousands of people, including their family members, to migrate from their ancestral land. Rapid growth of unskilled labor force in the major urban centers of Nepal as well as an increasing trend of cross-border and international labour migration has been an ultimate and easy escape for many Nepalese youth to secure their livelihood in the most recent years.

There is also a growing trend of an unplanned labor migration due to adverse impact of climate change and extreme weather events. Often, such unplanned migration has been an uninformed labor migration resulting into workers’ exploitation, as they are desperate to get into work in the new place. They have often lost their bargaining power to obtain reasonable wages and other social security benefits. In most cases, their labor rights are compromised. Likewise, our anecdotal evidences suggest that climate change and extreme weather events have contributed to increase the length of stay of labour migrants in their workplace destinations. Burden to repay the loan, recovering the financial loss due to extreme weather events, and even to cover the cost of family expenses are found some core reasons behind longer stay in workplace destinations.

Solutions to address the agenda of labor and insecurity associated with climate crisis

There is no doubt that climate change effects are a significant determining factor of Nepal’s migration flows. However, the scale of environmental factors is difficult to determine. While there are increasing numbers of cases of residential displacement caused by natural disasters and extreme weather, consequently triggering migration towards urban areas or abroad, a large majority of migration decisions are still made primarily in search of better economic and lifestyle opportunities. Still, there are some hidden pathways determined by environmental factors that directly and indirectly affect these opportunities, such as unpredictable farming harvests and unreliable infrastructure. The size and scale of these mechanisms, however, are unknown.

As the anecdotal evidences presented above suggest a strong linkage between climate change and labor mobility within and beyond Nepal, thus there is a need to address both climate change and labor mobility issues simultaneously. One pertinent agenda in this regard is associated with urgent reduction of carbon pollution and prepare ourselves for minimize the negative consequences of global warming. Strengthening of natural resource governance with advanced policies and institutional provisions for addressing the current as well as forthcoming climate security risks. On a programmatic side, empowering people and communities to adapt livelihood practices that is compatible with changing climate is a current need. In this regard, policies and programs from all three tier of governments should focus on robust climate change adaptation programs that are transformative and directly benefits informal sector workers, potential migrant labors, and communities impacted by climate induced disastrous events. 

Addressing the concerns of laborers and potential migrants should require a holistic and participatory approach. Thus, efforts should be taken from the relevant authorities to hold multi-stakeholder dialogues among people, powerholders, and private sector to develop climate resilient communities through the reduction of carbon emissions, creating green jobs, introducing climate-smart agricultural techniques, sustainable water conservation/management infrastructures, and livelihood diversification strategies in all topographical regions. Supporting climate migrants through social protection and social safety net programs, effective rehabilitation and resettlement policies and programs for people and communities impacted by climate change and extreme weather events, and building resilience capacity of people and communities who are affected by climate change and extreme weather events can be considered as core interventions in this regard.

Improved data gathering system should be in place that record and monitor the causes of labor migration in a systemic manner. This also includes the data around climate induced labor migration and other disruptions. Ensuring local government participation to maintain data system will ultimately improves the data availability on vulnerable and displaced population and hence strengthens the risk reductions and migration governance in Nepal. By identifying the vulnerable population beforehand helps to increase the wise materialization of resources to climate affected communities.

An intergovernmental coordination, transparency and accountability is more required to implement the robust climate financing at grassroots level. Participation of women at mainstream level is foremost important while lived experience of indigenous and marginalized groups in climate change and migration discourse could be better pathway to integrate migration governance as a broader climate action.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.