By Samir KC, IIASA World Population Program

In 2011, the last decadal census of Nepal counted more than 26.5 million people, plus about 2 million “absentee” Nepalese working abroad. The census revealed a population that is on the move, a rapidly declining number of births, and a high degree of population heterogeneity between the different areas of Nepal. The increasing complexity in the demographic dynamics is making it difficult for Nepal’s government to plan future policies and allocate budgets. That’s why at IIASA in collaboration with Ministry of Health of Nepal, we recently projected the Nepalese population up to 2031 by age and sex for 75 districts as well as more than 4000 villages and municipalities.

Passengers on a bus in Nepal. The country is seeing large amounts of migration both within and outside of the country. ©AusAID

Our projections show that the population of Nepal will continue to increase, albeit at a slow rate from, 26.5 million today to 34.2 million in 2031, and the age structure will continue to grow older. We found that demographic behaviors differ largely by geographic area within Nepal, and highly correlates with the inequalities in terms of development and opportunities. For example, the fertility level in the Mid-Western Hills and Mountain region were very high compared to the rest of the country.

Since 1959, Nepal has had an aggressive but non-mandatory family planning policy with a message to limit family size to two children, but this policy will be soon ending as the overall fertility is approaching the benchmark in most parts of the country. Our study projects that the number of children born, which has been declining in the past 10-15 years, will stabilize with some fluctuation due to larger cohort of women entering the reproductive ages. In the past, the declining number of births  lowered the burden in universalizing health coverage. The study suggests that now the government should channel its resources where needed and the nationwide focus should be more on improving the quality of reproductive services rather than telling people how many children they should have.

A stream of migration
Our analysis shows that for Nepal, the future population dynamics are likely to be influenced in large part by migration, both within and outside of the country. We found that especially in the hill and mountain districts of Nepal, depopulation is occurring as people move away. Because of the Maoist conflict during 1996-2006 and its impact on all aspects of life, young Nepali males began leaving their homes to find safer areas and better employment opportunities, often in Arab and Southeast Asian countries. This in turn might have affected the fertility rates as well as increased internal migration of the dependents (of the migrants made possible by the flow of remittance) from less developed to more developed areas within Nepal.

In recent times, women have joined the migration stream, and are likely to be a major force in lowering the fertility rate in Nepal. If the trend continues, a large part of the mountains and hills is likely to depopulate and the political and socioeconomic consequences of such phenomenon should be studied.

Projected population change in Nepal in 2031 compared to 2011. ©Samir KC & Markus Speringer

Our projections show that the country should expect a huge number of this absentee population to return. The young men and women in their 20s and 30s who have left the country to work in Arab and Asian countries will have to return in their 40s and 50s due to strict rules regulating labor migration in these countries, the labor intensive jobs might not suit their age, and to finally reunite with the family back home. They could be forced to return even sooner if the economic situation in these countries is adversely affected by regional or global recession or conflict, price of oil etc. However, questions remain about how the return process will unfold, where people they return to, and what its impact on the society and the nation would be.

We think that the data and the population model, and the projection that we developed for Nepal could be very useful in many ways, for example in population, environment, economics, social transformation, sustainable development, and other areas. However, we need more data and projections and the possibility to run alternative scenarios, and to do this, demographers, population experts, and governmental institutions should collaborate. One such collaborative initiative is currently underway at the Shanghai University, where I have recently started to develop such a model in 11 countries in Asia, including Nepal. Once the base population model is ready, adding further layers representing the wellbeing of the population will be the next step.

Reference
KC S, Speringer M, Thapa A, & Khanal MN (2016). Projecting Nepal’s Demographic Future- How to deal with spatial and demographic heterogeneity. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-16-021 http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/14029/

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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