The Karnali, at 507 kilometers is Nepal’s longest river. Flowing through remote western Nepal from the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet all the way through to India where it becomes the Ghaghara river. Currently, it is the only major river left in Nepal not to be dammed. Yet.
However, the threat of hydropower has been looming for many many years. Environmentalists are campaigning and fighting hard to save the Karnali River but is it enough?
An Indian company, GMR, won the bid to build the Upper Karnali Hydropower Project in 2008. It proposed to build a 410m dam (making it the highest in the world) and would create 900MW, more than the whole of Nepal’s current energy needs. For any of you who have traveled to Nepal in the past, will understand how much of an issue power is. Until recently, the country saw power cuts of up to 18 hours a day! Although this has recently drastically reduced, there is still a need to produce more power in Nepal, although a whopping 75% of the electricity generated by this hydropower project will be sent to India at the social and environment expense of Nepal . “Why should we give the best project to an Indian company at literally ‘no benefit to Nepal’,” said Dipak Gyawali, who was formerly Nepal’s water resources minister.
From a rafting (and even conservationists) point of view, dams aren’t the best way forward. The Karnali is Nepal’s last free flowing river, to see this gone will be devastating and we want to keep it flowing for several reasons.
- Wildlife – The Karnali region is home to many endangered species, including the elusive fresh water dolphin which are under enormous threat. A proposed Karnali wildlife corridor to facilitate the north-south movement of rhinos, elephants and tigers would be adversely affected by the building of the dam. Not to mention the affects the dam would have on nearly 200 species of fish. There will be an irreversible affect on habitats, migrations and survival of certain species.
- Tourism – The Karnali is arguably one of the best whitewater rafting and kayaking trips in the world. Bringing tourists here supports the local areas but opening up new regions to tourists that are not on the usual tourist trail. Food and other supplies are brought locally which helps support the region.
- The locals – although they will be compensated for their land and a ‘predicted’ 3000 jobs will be created which in an area where unemployment is high is welcome news, but whether these jobs will go to locals or not is yet to be seen. But is this enough to offset what will be done to the area. A whole way of life will be gone forever. For many, their families have lived here for generations and if they are displaced…where will they go? The feeling amongst the locals at the moment is that they are desperate for the dam to come. They are living in one of the poorest areas of Nepal and see this as a way to be relocated. They are looking for compensation and jobs, but it’s hard to trust that these things will be delivered for them.
Other environmental and social consequences from theHydropower development may also include; New landslide risks, loss of native flora and fauna, corruption.
So, what’s the current state of play? Well the project has already been delayed for almost 20 years already. They have now been granted permission to build it, but they don’t have the funds (approximately one billion dollars) and aren’t seeing support from the World Bank and other international lenders. As of yet, nothing has been confirmed so in the meantime efforts to save the Karnali are not slowing down.
“If a country like Nepal can deploy thousands of soldiers to guard the tigers and rhinos, billions of rupees to protect the forests, why can’t at least one river be saved?” asked Gary Wockner, a river activist and writer with Waterkeeper Alliance—a global group of river conservationists.
Kind out more about the Karnali
- Earth Island – Safeguarding the Karnali
- Water Keeper – Karnali River
- Nepal River Conservation Trust
- Upper Karnali Hydropower Project
- A guide to Dam Sanctioning in Nepal