Safeguarding the Karnali River

Nepal's last free-flowing river is threatened by a massive dam

Megh Ale (pronounced “Ah-lay”) is a patient man. His eyes twinkle, the corners almost always turned up into a soft smile. He used to be a monk before he started his rafting, adventure travel, and river conservation endeavors. Patience is a virtue in Nepal if you are a river conservationist, but a sense of alarm is also present in Ale’s face and voice. The country has about 6,000 rivers and streams, and every single river is dammed except one. That’s right — one.

Now that final free-flowing river, the Karnali, is also threatened. Ale is trying to save it.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerThe Karnali, Nepal’s last free-flowing river, faces threats from several proposed dams.

The Karnali River begins in the Himalaya Mountains on the Nepal-side of the Tibet border across from holy Mt. Kailish. The spiritual center for four eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bon — Mt. Kailish is believed to be where the Hindu’s Lord Shiva lives and sits in a state of perpetual meditation. But the Karnali River itself seems to never meditate. It rages and flows down the canyons of Western Nepal in a constant state of motion, its glacier-fed blue-green waters glistening in the sun.

We visited in the first week of November 2016, which is the dry season in Nepal. Led by Ale and his team at his rafting company, Ultimate Descents, 21 of us international adventurers from 10 different countries launched an 8-day raft trip on the Karnali as the inaugural “Karnali River Waterkeeper Expedition” This expedition wasn’t just about rafting. Organized in cooperation with the “Nepal River Conservation Trust,” which Ale co-founded in 1995, and the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which Ale began collaborating with in 2016, this adventure was about protecting the Karnali.

On our first day at the put-in (the starting point for the rafting trip), five of us woke up early and drove 18 miles upstream to the proposed dam site of the “Upper Karnali River Dam” in the village of Daab. GMR, the private Indian engineering firm that proposes to build a 520-foot tall hydroelectric dam on the river, has built a small headquarters in Daab, their six new modern buildings contrasting dramatically with the traditional mud and slash-roofed homes of the villagers.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerBefore embarking on the rafting trip, the author and four fellow rafters snuck down to the river near the dam builders’ headquarters and unveiled the “Save The Karnali” banner.

After arriving in Daab, we quickly and quietly snuck down through the village to the bank of the Karnali River and unveiled the “SAVE THE KARNALI” banner for a photo op. “The last best place of Nepal and only free flowing river in the country,” the banner read.

The proposed GMR project is just one of several proposals to dam the Karnali, including a competing proposal to build a 1,345-foot tall dam, which would be the world’s tallest. The proposals have unleashed a massive controversy in Nepal and have increasingly drawn international activist and media attention.

After our photo op, we drove back to the put-in at the village of Sauli. Sauli would be the last large village we’d see for eight days, and the street where we parked our bus would be the last road. Most of the canyon downstream from Sauli is accessible only by foot-traffic and is dotted with small farming villages. We quickly eased into the water and left the bus and the village behind us.

photoname Photo by Gary Wockner The Karnali River’s clear, blue-green water runs off of the
glaciers of the Himalayas below the Tibetan border.

As our armada of three large rafts and three kayaks began the journey, I could see the blade of my paddle down through the Karnali’s milky water. The Karnali’s blue-green water is clear down to about six feet — below that it’s not dirty or polluted, but clouded by the dissolved minerals that flow down from the Himalayan glaciers.

Wet season in Nepal — when the monsoons drench the entire country — is in June, July, and August. The climate is dry most of the rest of the year, and September, October, and November are the driest and sunniest.

At the put-in, we estimated the flow of the Karnali at 20,000 cubic feet per second, which is probably one-fifth of the wet season flow. The high watermark on the river was ten feet above us and had scoured the banks of the river clean of vegetation and most debris. It is that high water that the hydroelectric dam companies are hoping to divert and harness to generate electricity.

Though the financial, political, and ecological details have yet to be worked out, GMR’s “Upper Karnali River Dam” proposal is to build what’s called a “run of the river” hydroelectric project that would divert almost all of the water out of the river, bore a massive two kilometer-long tunnel downhill through a mountain, place a powerhouse at the bottom of the tunnel to generate electricity, and run the water down through the tunnel and powerhouse and then back into the river. About 44 miles of the Karnali River would be almost completely drained in the process. Because the Karnali River does a long circling switchback in the proposed area of the dam, the project would maximize the power created by the fall in the river, while minimizing the length of the tunnel, thereby creating a relatively cheap source of electricity.

All of the dam proposals on the Karnali have been delayed for two decades due to politics and competition between the proposals, including the Nepal government’s proposal to build the world’s largest dam and to maintain ownership of the project and the electricity. The GMR proposal — which took a step forward in 2014 with an agreement between the Nepal government and GMR — and would ship 75 percent of generated electricity to India. But so far, the GMR project has stalled for lack of funding and lack of political backing — it would cost nearly a billion dollars, and the project backers want funding from the World Bank and other international lending agencies, which has so far not materialized.

A third proposal is to keep the Karnali free-flowing as the only protected river in Nepal and a source of conservation, pride, and eco-tourism for the Nepali people. Nepal’s nascent river-protection movement, led in part by Megh Ale and his colleagues, has a unique voice in this controversy. It is a vibrant example of Nepal’s diversity, bringing together members of the country’s many religious and ethnic groups. Similar to the U.S.’ “National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” Ale is working to build a national campaign that protects the Karnali River and the corridor along it from the Chinese border, through Nepal, down into India.

map of Karnali Riverimage created by Gary Wockner The Karnali River Waterkeeper Expedition (red line) covered a stretch of the river that would be drained and seriously impacted by the proposed “Upper Karnali River Dam.”

It was this third proposal that was on our mind as we paddled and floated through several small villages the first few days of the expedition, reminded that the river is home not only to an ecological community, but to human communities as well. One memorable scene came as we approached a moderate-sized rapid around a large bend in the river — we saw a funeral pyre burning brightly on the bank with about 50 people surrounding it holding candles.

At the beginning of the trip, Ale told us we might see “Raute” people, members of Nepal’s last nomadic tribe. Small bands of this tribe are known to live in the jungle surrounding the Karnali, though it is unknown where they live at any one time. On the fourth day of our expedition as we set up our tents on Scorpion Beach, we were greeted by two Raute who walked out of the jungle to visit us. Their dialect overlapped with the Nepali language, so Ale and the Nepali guides and guests rafters who were with us were able to talk with them.

Over the next 24 hours, a few dozen Raute members came into our camp, and then we went to their small nomadic village where they lived in small impermanent structures made of branches covered with tarps. They subsisted by cutting down large tuni trees, whose rich dark wood they carved into bowls, boxes, and stools and then traded with Nepali villagers and occasional tourists. The Nepal government granted the Raute specific privileges to cut down the big and beautiful trees, which are otherwise protected. Our cultural exchange included us buying the hand-carved bowls for small sums of money, and the Raute chief getting a ride in one of our rafts, his first-ever such experience.

As we continued down the river, we regularly came across villages, which are carved out of the jungle every few miles. The local people live by farming rice and vegetables, fishing in the river, and selling and trading other goods when they hike out of the canyon. These villages helped sustain our trip — we bought fish and vegetables from locals, and at one point, we also bought a goat that was slaughtered and eaten over the next two days. We often encountered villagers paddling along the edges of the river in long dugout canoes, which they used to move people and products back and forth across the river in slower sections of water. We occasionally saw people slipping through the jungle above us, sometimes walking down to the beach to say hello, other times not. Our expedition paddled along with the swift-moving river as we also moved through a human ecological community that had been thriving in this canyon jungle for hundreds of years.

While the human culture along the Karnali may be a few hundred years old, the river and the canyon geology has been at work for millions. A two-day stretch of the river runs through a steep-walled canyon of hard rock and creates fabulous rapids. We scouted and then raced through Class III and IV rapids named “Sweetness and Light,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “God’s House,” “Juicer,” “Flip and Strip,” and “Totali Ghat.” Although the proposed dam, tunnel, and powerhouse is upstream of this wild section of the river, the rapids would still be diminished by the hydropower project. What would be even more diminished would be the wonderful beaches that line the river banks — the dam would trap all of the sand and sediment upriver and over time would rob and destroy the beaches in the lower river of their sand, just as dams do all over the planet. It would also block the passage of migrating endangered fish. The Karnali already has at least two endangered fish, including the mahseer, which can grow to five feet long and weigh over 100 pounds, and the giant catfish that can grow even bigger.

The Upper Karnali Dam would further endanger these fish, the human culture that survives on the fish, as well as the burgeoning eco-tourist economy on the river. Three raft companies currently run a few multi-day expeditions on the river each year and there’s potential for many more. River activists believe the Karnali should be protected for all of its economic benefits, including the eco-tourist trade. One of our crew mates, Ramesh Bhusal, a journalist who also works with the Waterkeeper Alliance on a different river in Nepal, believes the eco-tourist economy has great potential to provide more sustainable jobs than the hydropower project.

photo of Raute peoplephoto by Gary Wockner Megh Ale, who envisions a Karnali River National Park, says the “river could be the gift to future generations of people for our living earth.”

Megh Ale takes the idea of protecting the river a step further, foreseeing a “Karnali River National Park” that protects not only the river, but also a mile-wide corridor all the way along the river from Mt. Kailish on the Tibetan border, down into Bardia National Park in Nepal, and through Nepal into India to the headwaters of the Ganges. His visionary idea, if implemented, would be a first for the country, which has many national parks and spends vast amounts of money every year protecting those parks and their endangered wildlife, but has no protected rivers or anything like America’s “Wild and Scenic River” program.

As our expedition ended on the eighth day, we floated out onto the plains at the town of Chisapani. The river widens and braids farther downstream, and although it remains undammed, large diversion structures suck some of its water out for the massive rice farms out on the plains.

For now, the Karnali River is undammed, if not untouched, and the plans to keep it that way are also gaining steam. Efforts to reach out to international funding agencies, media, and political leaders are continuing to move forward, as are efforts to further develop the eco-tourism economy of rafting and fishing. Nepal’s massive mountains are known throughout the world — what’s less well-recognized is that those massive mountains and their glaciers also produce some of the most beautiful rivers in the world.

The Karnali River is worth saving, and Ale and his team are digging in for the adventure, committed as ever to protecting it.

To learn more about this ongoing conservation effort, visit the Karnali River Waterkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Nepal River Conservation Trust website. Learn more about the expedition at Ultimate Descents.

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