Over the last 30 years, most major rivers in Nepal have been researched for their hydropower potential on basis of economic cost and revenue from electricity.
The Marsyangdi, Kali Gandaki, Chilime, Bhote Kosi have now been dammed, and construction is nearing completion on the Modi Khola, Tama Kosi, Upper Trisuli, Khimti. More projects are planned in Upper Marsyangdi, Bhote Kosi (Rasuwa) and West Seti.
All rivers in Nepal have some form of hydroelectric development planned for the next 20 years. But we have to stop and ask: does prosperity only mean damming rivers for electricity, or are there other more nature-friendly ways to raise living standards?
The benefits of renewable fuel sources come at a price – the destruction of the river landscapes and fragile eco-systems around them. Fish species can be lost due to dams, and the riverine ecology is fractured by rampant development.
In the United States and Japan, overdevelopment has led to dams being dismantled so rivers can flow free again. Bhutan has declared free-flowing rivers, and even Australia has set aside the Franklin River. Norway generates 98% of its energy need with hydro, yet the river ecology is left intact for recreation and tourism.
Why cannot Nepal learn from the mistakes of other countries? We have 6,000 rivers and rivulets with a potential to generate 48,000MW, but none of them have been declared free-flowing, or protected as river heritage. Set aside at least one river on each basin to be free-flowing, and there will still be enough energy to go around. We have national parks to protect mountains, lakes, but none to protect rivers.
I first did a white water rafting descent on the Karnali in 1991 and it was the most pristine river I had ever been on. Since then, we have been working to protect Nepal’s longest river from over-development that has destroyed other rivers in the country. The trouble is that the Karnali flows through Nepal’s remotest and most underserved areas, and the pressure for economic extraction is high.
Karnali River Conservation and the Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT) have been working to protect the Karnali, a river that connects Mt Kailash with Bardia National Park and the Ganga in India. There is tremendous potential for eco-adventure tourism and pilgrim trails along the Karnali corridor. Scientists from all over the world would come to study the incredible diversity of the Karnali Basin.
Just making noise was not achieving results, so we decided to put together this expedition to explore the source of the Karnali and travel down with the river to its confluence with the Ganga in India. With us was geomorphologist Karen Bennett to gather science-based evidence on why it should be a free flowing river. We will use the findings to convince politicians.
A NEA report states that licenses have been issued to generate nearly 6,000MW on the tributaries of the Karnali like Humla Karnali, Mugu Karnali, Tila, West Seti etc. The GMR license for Upper Karnali has expired, so this would be the opportunity to cancel it and concentrate on projects that do not touch the main stem of the Karnali.
A pilgrim trail along the Karnali River from Chisapani to Kailash can draw Indian devotees to trek to Mansarovar, and bring Chinese Buddhists to Lumbini. Eco-tourism trails and homestays can provide local income.
The Karnali is nature’s gift to Nepal and among the five best in the world for whitewater rafting and kayaking. If it is promoted well it can lift this entire region of Western Nepal out of poverty.
The government of the province that is named after the Karnali must realise that their river is as important as Mt Everest. This can be a perfect world class Himalayan river heritage site connecting the cultures and economies of India and China through Nepal.
Look out for the 3rd National River Summit 28-31 March at the heart of the Karnali at Rakum. There will be exhibitions and presentations by scientists that highlight the unique features and potentials for this great river.
Megh Ale is President of the Nepal River Conservation Trust.