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 abode of snow, Nepal is very mountainous and hilly. Its shape is roughly rectangular, about 800 kilometers long and about 100 to 200 kilometers wide, and comprises a total of 147,181 square kilometers of land. It is slightly larger than Bangladesh or the state of Arkansas. 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.
Nepal commonly is divided into three broad physiographic areas: the Mountain Region, the Hill Region, and the Tarai 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 intrinsically intertwined with its physical environment. As scholar Barry Bishop learned from his field research in the Karnali region in the northwest, the livelihood patterns of Nepal are inseparable from the environment.
The Mountain Region (Parbat in Nepali) rises immediately north of the hill region and at higher elevations, beginning on the immediate outskirts of the main Himalaya where ridges (lekh) begin reaching the treeless alpine zone above 3,500 to 4,000 meters elevation, continuing up into the zone of perpetual snow above 5,000 to 5,500 meters. There are about 90 peaks in Nepal over 7,000 meters (22,965') and eight giants exceeding 8,000 meters (26,246'), including earth's highest, Mount Everest at 8,848 meters and third highest, Kanchenjunga at 8,598 meters.
Cutting between the various subranges of the Himalaya and north of them are alpine, often semi-arid valleys including Humla, Jumla, Mustang, Manang District and Kumbu that are lightly populated by people with Tibetan affinities called Bhotiya or Bhutia, the famous Sherpas in the Kumbu valley near Mount Everest. Bhote traditionally grazed yaks, grew cold-tolerant crops such as potatoes, barley and millet, and traded across the mountains, e.g. Tibetan salt for rice from lowlands in Nepal and India. Since the 1950s these mountain peoples have also found work as high altitude porters, guides, cooks and other accessories to tourism and alpinism.
Bhote language and culture extend north into Tibet proper, with the international border following the Himalayan crest in eastern Nepal. In central and western Nepal the border mostly follows lower (~6,000 meter) ranges tens of kilometers north of the highest peaks, the watershed between the Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins.
Although the higher elevations (above 2,500 meters) in the region are sparsely populated because of physiographic and climatic difficulties, the lower hills and valleys are densely settled. The hill landscape is 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, are 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.
Traversing these plains north toward the outermost range of foothills called the Siwaliks, there is a forested alluvial belt along the base, marshy with springs fed by groundwater percolating down from higher elevations. Before the use of DDT this zone was heavily infested with malaria. Nepal's rulers used it as a defensive frontier called the char kose jhadi (twelve kilometer forest).
Beyond the alluvial belt, the Siwaliks rise as high as 1,000 meters, steepest on their southern slopes because of faults. This range is made of poorly consolidated, coarse sediments that quickly absorb rainfall and are unsuited to agriculture, so there is very little population. However just north of the Siwaliks there are a number of "dun" valleys or the Inner Terai. Among these are Surkhet, Dang and Deukhuri in western Nepal and the Rapti Valley (Chitwan) in central Nepal. These valleys were also malarial and lightly populated until DDT was used to suppress mosquitos, but they had significant agricultural potential that was exploited to a limited degree by the Tharu ethnic group who were resistant to malaria. Following eradication of malaria that begain in the 1950s, farmers from the hills settled in these valleys and exploited the agricultural potential to a much greater degree.
A higher range of foothills called the Mahabharat lies north of these valleys, or north of the Siwaliks where there are no valleys separating the two ranges. This is where the Terai gives way to the hill region.
Today, the majority of Nepal's population and most of the cities and towns are found in this region. In terms of both farm and forest lands, it is becoming Nepal's richest economic region. Except for the Siwalik ranges, this is a zone of flat land with abundant water supplies for intensive agriculture, and it has the largest commercially exploitable forests. Furthermore it is better supplied with roads, electricity and other infrastructure than the hills to the north.
Nepal has a great deal of variation in climate. Its latitude is about the same as that of Florida, so the low elevation Terai has a tropical and subtropical climate. Above the Terai, the climate is completely different due to higher elevations. The east-west-trending Himalayan ranges to the north and the monsoonal alteration of wet and dry seasons also contribute to local variations in climate. Scholar Sharad Singh Negi identifies five climatic zones in Nepal based on altitude: a tropical and subtropical zone below 1,200 meters (the frost limit in winter), a cool temperate zone between 1,200 and 2,400 meters (where there is at least occasional snowfall in winter), a cold zone betwen 2,400 and 3,600 meters (tree line), a subarctic zone from 3,600 to 4,400 meters, and an arctic zone above 4,400 meters.
In terms of natural vegetational regimes or distribution patterns, altitude again plays a significant role. Below 1,200 meters, the dominant form of vegetation consists of tropical and subtropical forests that have evolved in response to the monsoonal climate. Altitude also affects annual rainfall or precipitation patterns. Up to about 3,000 meters, annual rainfall totals increase with elevation, but above this they decrease with elevation and latitude. Two other patterns can be discerned. First, given the northwestward movement of the moisture-laden summer monsoon (June to September), the amount of annual rainfall generally decreases from east to west, although there are exceptional areas such as the Pokhara Valley in Central Nepal with higher rainfall due to generally lower "hills" to the south and the main Himalayan Range immediately to the north that stops the northward passage of moist air. Second, adabiatic effects increase rainfall on south- and east-facing mountain slopes, with a rain shadow on northern sides. This reaches its climax in the inner Himalayan region and on the Tibetan Plateau. Eastern Nepal receives approximately 2,500 millimeters of rain annually, the Kathmandu area gets about 1,400 millimeters, and western Nepal about 1,000 millimeters.
The towering Himalayas play a critical role, blocking the northwesterly advances of moist, tropical air from the Bay of Bengal, and ultimately leading to its conversion to rain in the summer. In the winter, this range prevents the outbursts of cold air from Inner Asia from reaching southern Nepal and northern India, thus ensuring warmer winters in these regions than otherwise would be the case.
In addition, there are seasonal variations in the amount of rainfall, depending on the monsoon cycle. Bishop divides the monsoon cycle into four seasons: premonsoon, summer monsoon, postmonsoon, and winter monsoon. The premonsoon season generally occurs during April and May; it is characterized by the highest temperatures, reaching 40 °C during the day in the Terai Region and other lowlands. The hills and mountains, however, remain cool.
The summer monsoon, a strong flow of moist air from the southwest, follows the premonsoon season. For the vast majority of southern Asians, including Nepalese, the term monsoon is synonymous with the summer rainy season, which makes or breaks the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers on the subcontinent. Even though the arrival of the summer monsoon can vary by as much as a month, in Nepal it generally arrives in early June, is preceded by violent lightning and thunderstorms, and lasts through September, when it begins to recede. The plains and lower Himalayas receive more than 70% of their annual precipitation during the summer monsoon. The amount of summer monsoon rain generally declines from southeast to northwest as the maritime wedge of air gradually becomes thinner and dryer. Although the success of farming is almost totally dependent on the timely arrival of the summer monsoon, it periodically causes such problems as landslides; subsequent losses of human lives, farmlands, and other properties (not to mention great difficulty in the movement of goods and people); and heavy flooding in the plains. Conversely, when prolonged breaks in the summer monsoon occur, severe drought and famine often result.
The postmonsoon season begins with a slow withdrawal of the monsoon. This retreat leads to an almost complete disappearance of moist air by mid-October, thus ushering in generally cool, clear, and dry weather, as well as the most relaxed and jovial period in Nepal. By this time, the harvest is completed and people are in a festive mood. The two biggest and most important Hindu festivals-- Dashain and Tihar (Dipawali)--arrive during this period, about one month apart. The postmonsoon season lasts until about December.
After the postmonsoon, comes the winter monsoon, a strong northeasterly flow, which is marked by occasional, short rainfalls in the lowlands and plains and snowfalls in the high-altitude areas. The amount of precipitation resulting from the northeast land trade winds varies considerably but increases markedly with elevation. The secondary winter precipitation in the form of snowfalls in the Himalayas is important for generating a sufficient volume of spring and summer meltwaters, which are critical for irrigation in the lower hills and valleys where agriculture predominates. Winter precipitation is also are indispensable for the success of winter crops, such as wheat, barley, and numerous vegetables.
The eastern part of the country is drained by the Koshi 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 Gandaki, 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.