Nepal has tremendous geographic diversity. It is made up of three extremely contrasted areas. It rises from less than 100 metres (328 ft) elevation in the tropical Terai—the northern rim of the Gangetic Plain, beyond the perpetual snow line to some 90 peaks over 7,000 metres (22,966 ft.) including Earth's highest 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) Mount Everest or Sagarmatha.
Ecologically, the land mass is divided into three geographical zones from East to West namely Terai Region, Hill Region and Mountain Region. In the other direction it is divided into three major river systems, from east to west: Koshi, Gandaki/Narayani and Karnali (including the Mahakali / Sarda along the western border), all tributaries of the Ganges. 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.
Southern Nepal has much of the character of the great plains of India, from which it outspreads with the elevation ranges from 60 meters to 610 meters above the sea level. Known as the Terai, this region includes both cultivable land and dense jungle, the latter being for the most part a game preserve inhabited by the wild elephant, tiger, and other typically South Asian fauna. Besides being a hunting ground, the forests are worked for their valuable timber. 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. The Terai contains about one-third of Nepal's population and makes up about one-fourth of the total area. It covers 23 percent of the total area of the country out of which 40 percent is under cultivation. It is also known as “grain basket” or “store house” of Nepal. The Terai includes several valleys (dun), such as the Surkhet and Dang valleys in western Nepal, and the Rapti Valley (Chitwan) in central Nepal. Highly populated and industrial cities such as Biratnagar, Birgunj, Bhairahawa and Lumbini (the birth place of Lord Buddha) are situated in this region. This is culturally close to Northern India with the people speaking Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Tharu, and Maithili along with Nepali.
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 twelve 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 frontline; it became the most coveted internal destination for land-hungry hill crofters. 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.
Situated south of the Mountain Region, the Hill Region (called Pahar in Nepali) mostly lies between the altitudes of 610 meters to 4,877 meters from the sea level. The second and by far the largest part of Nepal are formed by the two major ranges of hills, commonly known as the Mahabharat Lekh and Siwalik Range (or Churia Range) and Himalayan mountain ranges, extending from east to west. Their altitude increases toward the north, culminating on the Tibetan border in Mount Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali), and standing amid other noble peaks. This region accounts the largest share (42 percent) of the total land area of the country with several stunning mountains, high peaks, hills, lakes, basins and valley such as Kathmandu (with the foothills town of Bhaktapur and Patan), Pokhara, Dang and Surkhet. Three principal rivers originate from glaciers and snow-fed lakes, break southward through deep Himalayan gorges, and enter, respectively, the Karnali, Gandaki and Kosi basins. Flowing toward India, they become tributaries (as are all Nepal's rivers) of the Ganges system.
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.
The Hill Region was a food-deficit area in the early 1990s, although agriculture was the predominant economic activity supplemented by livestock raising, hunting, and seasonal migrating of laborers. The vast majority of the households living in the hills was 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. During the slack season, when the weather did not permit cropping, hill dwellers generally became seasonal migrants, who engage in wage labor wherever they could find it to supplement their inadequate farm output. Dependence on nonagricultural activities was even more necessary in the mountain ecological belt.
The Mountain Region (called Parbat in Nepali) lies on the northern part of the country covering mountainous area. It is situated at 4,877 meters to 8848 meters above sea level. There are more than 250 peaks in this region with more than 6000 meters in height (8 mountains among the highest 10 mountains in the world with Mt. Everest). In this region the snow line lies above 5000 meters and there is no human settlement above this line. This region covers 35% area of the country but only 2% of the land is suitable for cultivation. The region is characterized by inclement climatic and rugged topographic conditions, and human habitation and economic activities are extremely limited and arduous. Indeed, whatever farming activity exists is mostly confined to the low-lying valleys and the river basins, such as the upper Kali Gandaki Valley. Since this region is mostly steep, rugged and cold, it is the most sparsely populated region of the country. 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. Triangulated in 1850, Mt. Everest was officially given the status of the world's highest peak in 1859. The summit (8,848 m/29,035 ft.) was reached for the first time on 29 May 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide.
Alpine, often semi-arid valleys including Humla, Jumla, Dolpo, Mustang, Manang and Khumbu—cut between Himalayan sub ranges or lie north of them. Some of these valleys historically were more accessible from Tibet than Nepal and are populated by people with Tibetan affinities called Bhotiya or Bhutia including the famous Sherpas in Kumbu valley near Mount Everest.
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.
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