Sandwiched between two Asian giants–China and India–Nepal traditionally has been characterized as “a yam caught between two rocks.” Noted for its majestic Himalayas, which in Sanskrit means the home of snow, Nepal is very mountainous and hilly. Its shape is roughly rectangular, about 650 kilometers long and about 200 kilometers wide, and comprises a total of 147,181 square kilometers of land.

Nepal Topography

Nepal is a landlocked country, surrounded by India on three sides and by China’s Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet) to the north. It is separated from Bangladesh by an approximately 15 kilometer wide strip of India’s state of West Bengal, and from Bhutan by the 88 kilometer wide Sikkim, also an Indian state. Such a confined geographical position is hardly enviable. Nepal is almost totally dependent on India for transit facilities and access to the sea–that is, the Bay of Bengal–even for most of the goods coming from China.

For a small country, Nepal has great physical diversity, ranging from the Terai Plain–the northern rim of the Gangetic Plain situated at about 300 meters above sea level in the south–to the almost 8,800-meter-high Mount Everest, locally known as Sagarmatha (its Nepali name), in the north. From the lowland Terai belt, landforms rise in successive hill and mountain ranges, including the stupendous rampart of the towering Himalayas, ultimately reaching the Tibetan Plateau beyond the Inner Himalayas. This rise in elevation is punctuated by valleys situated between mountain ranges. Within this maze of mountains, hills, ridges, and low valleys, elevational (altitudinal) changes resulted in ecological variations.

Nepal commonly is divided into three broad physiographic areas: the Mountain Region, the Hill Region, and the Terai Region. All three parallel each other, from east to west, as continuous ecological belts, occasionally bisected by the country’s river systems. These ecological regions were divided by the government into development sectors within the framework of regional development planning.

The rhythm of life in Nepal, as in most other parts of monsoonal Asia, is intricately yet fundamentally intertwined with its physical environment. As scholars learned from field research in the Karnali region in the northwest, the livelihood patterns of Nepal are inseparable from the environment.

Mountain Region

The Mountain Region (called Parbat in Nepali) is situated at 4,000 meters or more above sea level to the north of the Hill Region. The Mountain Region constitutes the central portion of the Himalayan range originating in the Pamirs, a high altitude region of Central Asia. Its natural landscape includes Mount Everest and the other seven of the world’s ten highest peaks, which are the legendary habitat of the mythical creature, the yeti, or abominable snowman. In general, the snow line occurs between 5,000 and 5,500 meters. The region is characterized by inclement climatic and rugged topographic conditions, and human habitation and economic activities are extremely limited and arduous. Indeed, the region is sparsely populated, and whatever farming activity exists is mostly confined to the low-lying valleys and the river basins, such as the upper Kali Gandaki Valley.

In the early 1990s, pastoralism and trading were common economic activities among mountain dwellers. Because of their heavy dependence on herding and trading, transhumance was widely practiced. While the herders moved their Goths (temporary animal shelters) in accordance with the seasonal climatic rhythms, traders also migrated seasonally between highlands and lowlands, buying and selling goods and commodities in order to generate much needed income and to secure food supplies.

Hill Region

Situated south of the Mountain Region, the Hill Region (called Pahar in Nepali) is mostly between 1,000 and 4,000 meters in altitude. It includes the Kathmandu Valley, the country’s most fertile and urbanized area. Two major ranges of hills, commonly known as the Mahabharat Lekh and Siwalik Range (or Churia Range), occupy the region. In addition, there are several intermontane valleys. Despite its geographical isolation and limited economic potential, the region always has been the political and cultural center of Nepal, with decision-making power centralized in Kathmandu, the nation’s capital. Because of immigration from Tibet and India, the hill ranges historically have been the most heavily populated area. Despite heavy out-migration, the Hill Region comprised the largest share of the total population in 1991.

Although the higher elevations (above 2,500 meters) in the region were sparsely populated because of physiographic and climatic difficulties, the lower hills and valleys were densely settled. The hill landscape was both a natural and cultural mosaic, shaped by geological forces and human activity. The hills, sculpted by human hands into a massive complex of terraces, were extensively cultivated.

Like the Mountain Region, the Hill Region was a food-deficit area in the early 1990s, although agriculture was the predominant economic activity supplemented by livestock raising, foraging, and seasonal migrating of laborers. The vast majority of the households living in the hills were land-hungry and owned largely pakho (hilly) land. The poor economic situation caused by lack of sufficient land was aggravated by the relatively short growing season, a phenomenon directly attributable to the climatic impact of the region’s higher altitude. As a result, a hill farmer’s ability to grow multiple crops was limited. The families were forced to adapt to the marginality, as well as the seasonality, of their environment, cultivating their land whenever they could and growing whatever would survive. Bishop has noted that “as crop productivity decreases with elevation, the importance of livestock in livelihood pursuits . . . increases. For many Bhotia [or Bhote] living in the highlands . . . animal husbandry supplants agriculture in importance.” During the slack season, when the weather did not permit cropping, hill dwellers generally became seasonal migrants, who engaged in wage labor wherever they could find it to supplement their meager farm output. Dependence on nonagricultural activities was even more necessary in the mountain ecological belt.

Terai Region

In complete topographic contrast to the Mountain and Hill regions, the Terai Region is a lowland tropical and subtropical belt of flat, alluvial land stretching along the Nepal-India border, and paralleling the Hill Region. It is the northern extension of the Gangetic Plain in India, commencing at about 300 meters above sea level and rising to about 1,000 meters at the foot of the Siwalik Range. The Terai includes several valleys (dun), such as the Surkhet and Dang valleys in western Nepal, and the Rapti Valley (Chitwan) in central Nepal.

The word Terai, a term presumed to be derived from Persian, means “damp,” and it appropriately describes the region’s humid and hot climate. The region was formed and is fed by three major rivers: the Kosi, the Narayani (India’s Gandak River), and the Karnali. A region that in the past contained malaria-infested, thick forests, commonly known as char kose jhari (dense forests approximately 12 kilometers wide), the Terai was used as a defensive frontier by Nepalese rulers during the period of the British Raj (1858-1947) in India. In 1991 the Terai served as the country’s granary and land resettlement frontier; it became the most coveted internal destination for land-hungry hill peasants.

In terms of both farm and forest lands, the Terai was becoming Nepal’s richest economic region. Overall, Terai residents enjoyed a greater availability of agricultural land than did other Nepalese because of the area’s generally flat terrain, which is drained and nourished by several rivers. Additionally, it has the largest commercially exploitable forests. In the early 1990s, however, the forests were being increasingly destroyed because of growing demands for timber and agricultural land.

Climate

Nepal has a great deal of variation in climate. Its latitude is about the same as that of Florida, and a tropical and subtropical climate exists in the Terai Region. Outside the Terai, however, the climate is completely different. The remarkable differences in climatic conditions are primarily related to the enormous range of altitude within such a short north-south distance. The presence of the east-west-trending Himalayan massifs to the north and the monsoonal alteration of wet and dry seasons also greatly contribute to local variations in climate.>for details go to climate of Nepal.

River System

Nepal can be divided into three major river systems from east to west: the Kosi River, the Narayani River (India’s Gandak River), and the Karnali River. All ultimately become major tributaries of the Ganges River in northern India. After plunging through deep gorges, these rivers deposit their heavy sediments and debris on the plains, thereby nurturing them and renewing their alluvial soil fertility. Once they reach the Terai Region, they often overflow their banks onto wide floodplains during the summer monsoon season, periodically shifting their courses. Besides providing fertile alluvial soil, the backbone of the agrarian economy, these rivers present great possibilities for hydroelectric and irrigation development. India managed to exploit this resource by building massive dams on the Kosi and Narayani rivers inside the Nepal border, known, respectively, as the Kosi and Gandak projects. None of these river systems, however, support any significant commercial navigation facility. Rather, the deep gorges formed by the rivers represent immense obstacles to establishing the broad transport and communication networks needed to develop an integrated national economy. As a result, the economy in Nepal has remained fragmented. Because Nepal’s rivers have not been harnessed for transportation, most settlements in the Hill and Mountain regions remain isolated from each other. As of 1991, trails remained the primary transportation routes in the hills.

The eastern part of the country is drained by the Kosi River, which has seven tributaries. It is locally known as the Sapt Kosi, which means seven Kosi rivers (Tamur, Likhu Khola, Dudh, Sun, Indrawati, Tama, and Arun). The principal tributary is the Arun, which rises about 150 kilometers inside the Tibetan Plateau. The Narayani River drains the central part of Nepal and also has seven major tributaries (Daraudi, Seti, Madi, Kali, Marsyandi, Budhi, and Trisuli). The Kali, which flows between the Dhaulagiri Himal and the Annapurna Himal (Himal is the Nepali variation of the Sanskrit word Himalaya), is the main river of this drainage system. The river system draining the western part of Nepal is the Karnali. Its three immediate tributaries are the Bheri, Seti, and Karnali rivers, the latter being the major one. The Maha Kali, which also is known as the Kali and which flows along the Nepal-India border on the west side, and the Rapti River also are considered tributaries of the Karnali.

Resources and Land Use

Natural resources

Quartz, water, timber, hydropower, scenic beauty, small deposits of lignite, copper, cobalt, iron ore

Land use

Arable land : 21.68%

Permanent crops : 0.64%

Other : 77.68% (2001)

Irrigated land : 11,350 km² (1998 est.)

Forests

25.4% of Nepal’s land area, or about 36,360 km² (14,039 mi²) is covered with forest according to FAO figures from 2005. FAO estimates that around 9.6% of Nepal’s forest cover consists of “primary forest” which is relatively intact. About 12.1% Nepal’s forest is classified as “protected” while about 21.4% is “conserved” according to FAO. About 5.1% Nepal’s forests are classified as “production forest.” Between 2000-2005, Nepal lost about 2640 km² of forest. Nepal’s 2000-2005 total deforestation rate was about 1.4% per year meaning it lost an average of 530 km² of forest annually. Nepal’s total deforestation rate from 1990-2000 was 920 km² or 2.1% per year. The 2000-2005 true deforestation rate in Nepal, defined as the loss of primary forest, is -0.4% or 70 km² per year.

Nepal has a variety of Vegetations that classified under Vegetation Zones.

Tropical (up to 1000m)

Sal, a broad-leaved, semi deciduous hardwood, dominates here. It varies little from east to west and is a climax species.

In this zone there is also a deciduous moist forest of acacia and rosewood, as well as open areas of tall elephant grass. The silky cotton tree with its thorny trunk when young, and smooth buttressed trunk base when older drops its leaves and bursts into bright red flowers in early spring.

These forest types are typical of the Churia Hills and inner Terai, although sal and silky cotton are also found in the subtropical zone.

Subtropical (1000m to 2000m)

The dominant species east of the Kali Gandaki are the true chestnuts and the schima. The spiky flower clusters of the chestnuts appear in the fall, while the fragrant white flowers of the schima bloom in late spring. Due to the popularity of Chestnut wood as a source of fuel, it is often depleted.

In the west, the chir pine is found on all aspects. This species is also found in the east, but confined to drier southern.

Lower Temperate (1700m to 2700m)

Evergreen oaks are indigenous to this zone. In the east, the oaks of the wet forests are festooned with moss and epiphytes and have dense understoreys. In the west, another species, preferring dry conditions, is present.

A common wet forest that occurs mostly on north and west faces in western Nepal consists of horse chestnut, maple and walnut. Alder and birch are prevalent along watercourses.

Homogeneous blue-pine forests occur extensively in the west, mostly on south faces, and range to the tree line. This species is hardy and fire resistant, thriving well in habitats modified by humans. It is also found, to a lesser extent, throughout the east.

Upper Temperate (2400m to 3000m)

Brown oak is widespread throughout the forests of western Nepal. In the east, it is confined to southern slopes, but has suffered heavy deforestation for fodder and fuel.

The spectacular wet rhododendron forests are interspersed with hemlock and fir. There are also pure stands of blue pine. In the west it occurs with fir and spruce; in the east, firs, hemlocks and yews associate with blue pine. A mixed broad-leaved forest of maple and laurel is also typical of this zone.

Subalpine (3000m to 4000m)

Silver fir, mixed with oak and birch, extends to the tree line in the west. East of the Kali Gandaki, only birch is found to the tree line, although in wetter conditions, dwarf bamboo and shrub rhododendron may replace it. In dry areas, juniper species occur to the tree line.

Alpine (4000m to Snow Line)

In this realm above the tree line, vegetation must cope with extremes in ground temperatures and moisture gradients that range from nothing in winter to profuse in summer. Only the most tenacious wild-flowers thrive here, usually by being hirsute or having thick underground stems (rhizomes). A successful example is stellara, common above 5500m.

In the Trans-Himalaya, vegetation is restricted to the arid species of the Tibetan plateau.

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