Social Science Baha
Official

A Lowland Plague in a Himalayan Country: A Historical Political Ecology of Disease in Nepal Before 1950

Thomas Robertson

For most outsiders, Nepal evokes the soaring peaks of the Himalayas—Everest, Annapurna, Kanchenjunga.  But, surprisingly, much of Nepal’s history has been shaped by a lowland disease and the insects that carry it: malaria.  Malaria plagued the entire Himalayan area—especially the Tarai, but also the valleys between mountain ranges. Its eradication, although not 100%, radically re-configured the country’s economic, social, political, and environmental history.  Today, we cannot understand the history of Nepal’s lowlands or its uplands without understanding the history of this disease. 

And yet, we actually know very little about the malaria of the Nepal Himalayas.  Misunderstandings are common.  Even well educated people think of malaria as a single disease that comes from dirty water and that affected just the Tarai and did so equally.  But in fact, Nepal’s malaria was several different diseases, came mostly from clean water, plagued the hills as well as the Tarai, and affected different areas within the Tarai differently.  As one scholar later put it, ‘The whole of the Tarai was not equally malarious.’

The purpose of this paper on Nepal’s history is to analyse the impact of malaria on Nepal’s history up to 1951, when Nepal’s government began efforts to control malaria in coordination with different foreign development agencies, especially the WHO and USAID. Drawing from a diverse array of historical and ethnographic sources as well as contemporary science, the paper does two things: 1) it describes the epidemiology, entomology, ecology, and geography of malaria in the central Himalayan area in order to shed light on the various kinds of malaria parasites, the various mosquito carriers, and the ecological conditions that facilitated malaria; and 2) it examines how the disease shaped Nepali society, the ways Nepalis adapted to the disease, and the ways Nepalis influenced the disease. 

In addition to trying to establish a historical baseline from which to understand the dramatic changes that the malaria programmes of the 1950s and 1960s brought to Nepal, the paper outlines a framework for thinking about malaria that I will call the historical political ecology of disease. The approach emphasises historical dynamism, ecological variability, and social inequalities.

The paper is part of a larger project on the environmental history of development programmes in Nepal during the Cold War.