The Karnali in western Nepal is the nation’s longest river. It flows gloriously free for now, to the benefit of rafting tourism and the people and wild animals that depend on its waters – but for how much longer? Chinese and Indian megadam builders are closing in on the mighty river.
In the late 19th century, Western geographers were intent on finding the exact sources and courses of the major rivers of Asia. Tibet, however, was off-limits for exploration. Tibetans claimed that four major rivers derived from Mt Kailash – a peak sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, Bon adherents, Hindus and Jains. This was dismissed as myth until, decades later, the British discovered that the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Indus, Sutlej and Karnali all arose within 100 kilometres of Kailash.
At the time, the British had no craft fit to explore these huge rivers as they gushed through towering gorges. The irony is that now we can explore these rivers by raft and kayak, but the four rivers themselves are under siege – by Chinese and Indian megadam-builders. The 500-MW Zhangmu Dam is up and running on the Tsangpo southeast of Lhasa. And four more Chinese-built dams are under construction in a cascade on this stretch of the river. The Indus is being dammed in Pakistan in liaison with Chinese megadam-builders and financiers. The Sutlej has been dammed at a handful of sites by Indian dam-builders, with 1325-MW Bhakra Dam being the largest gravity dam in the world.
And the Karnali is the last free-flowing river sourced near Kailash. It is still possible to descend by raft or kayak from the source of the Karnali close to Mt Kailash all the way to where it flows into India’s most sacred river, the Ganges. We are setting off on a more modest trajectory: rafting the Karnali for seven days in far-west Nepal, from Daab to Chisopani. But the threat of dams looms large here. Indian company GMR has a controversial proposal to build a megadam at Daab, just above the put-in point for our rafting trip. The dam would divert all the water through a two-kilometre tunnel where it would drive turbines to generate electricity. This design would completely drain a loop of around 70 kilometres of the Karnali, and all locals would have to be relocated. At least 75% of the 900-MW of power generated would be exported to India. Toward the mid-section of the rafting run, on the West Seti, a key Karnali tributary, there’s a proposal to build a 750-MW dam. China’s Three Gorges Corporation has a 75% stake in this project. Below the rafting take-out point at Chisopani, there are further plans for a gargantuan 10-GW project—far larger than any dam in India itself.
Nepali Government deals with such megadam builders are often shrouded in secrecy. Locals are rarely consulted about these projects, and very little environment impact assessment is done. In any case, the power is not destined for Nepalese themselves—it is slated to be exported as a lucrative foreign income earner. With its powerful rivers running from Himalayan heights, Nepal has huge hydropower potential—as yet tapped. Chinese megadam builders have run into rather large snag. Indian PM Modi told his Nepali counterpart PM KP Oli at a meeting in March 2018 that India would only allow export of hydropower from Indian-built dams in Nepal, not from Chinese-built dams. And India is the only feasible export revenue earner, since it is near-impossible to run transmission lines from Nepal over the Himalayas into Tibet and on to the grid in China. That could turn Chinese-built megadams into multi-million-dollar white elephants. Which, from a rafter’s point-of-view, would be a very good thing.
Tonight, it feels like the reset button has been pushed–back to the dawn of time perhaps. A million stars overhead make me feel like a mote of dust. We are camped under this infinite canopy on a spit of white sand, on the banks of the Karnali river in western Nepal. Sparks rise from the fire, logs crackle. Gathered around is our new ‘family’: five rafters, three kayakers, our captain Bikram, and our expedition leader Mahendra, who mans the gear-boat with an assistant. All swapping stories.
For now, the Karnali is still pristine, thundering along like a great river should–not choked by megadams. Tumbling through canyons and jungles for 507 kilometres, the Karnali is Nepal’s longest – and one of its last major free-flowing rivers. It’s our second day and it’s been a wild ride — with exhilarating runs on Class 3+ rapids. Many times, our fate has hung on Bikram’s split-second decisions, and occasionally on the reactions of the two safety kayakers. The weather is hot, but that’s no problem when christened by the rapids – dumping icy water over our heads at regular intervals. We catch glimpses of wildlife. Langurs are sighted in the treetops, eyeballing us right back — and our arrival at the campsite interrupts a cavorting pair of mongooses.
By now, I have settled into the rhythm of the river: paddle (strenuously), eat (ravenously), set up camp, sleep (like a log). The menu is still fresh, with novelties like pasta with vegetables and yak-cheese still tempting, though this cannot last. My new evening ritual is to lie down gazing at stars before retiring. Miraculously, there are no mosquitoes along the river. But Mahendra tells us scorpions have been spotted in these parts. Pythons and leopards too. In fact, this campsite is called Scorpion Beach apparently. A day of being tossed around in huge rapids, being stared at by langurs and checking the toilet tent for scorpions – that’s the stuff of vivid dreams.
Our paddles are the envy of the locals, who drop by the camp and borrow them to test out. They fish and cross the river using dugout canoes, sometimes propelled with a wooden pole, or simply the boatman’s flip-flops. On day three, Mahendra leads us inland on a village tour. This is a hike with a mission: to inform locals about news that will have a huge bearing on their future: proposals for a dam. Most villagers are illiterate and have very little idea about such things so hope rests with the younger generation, most now at least attending school. Along this part of the river, villagers are mostly subsistence farmers — growing rice, wheat and potatoes — with water buffalo, chickens and goats parked close to their adobe homesteads, if not inside them. The Karnali hosts a profusion of ethnic groups— the Magar, Bisokarma and Chetri among them. Rarer are the nomadic Raute, who forage for forest fruits and bushmeat.
Day four on the river: rodeo on the rapids. This is what we came for. To experience the full power of the river. Stretched over seven kilometres is a staircase of drops, between big canyons. Our captain, Bikram, is wary. We stop to scout the bigger rapids to determine if they harbour any deadly holes that will flip the raft. He’s been here before, but they constantly change.
The first major challenge, God’s House, goes over a giant rock to the side, creating a massive hydraulic hole and a narrow passage with a strong reverse wave in the middle. This one lets us off lightly, but the next rapid, The Juicer, is a nasty Class 4+. The raft bucks and weaves, spins 360˚, and barely makes it. A big high-five of the paddles, and we thunder on – straight into Flip & Strip, Touching the Void and Freight Train. As the water crashes around, all our energy goes into hanging on. Hands grip safety ropes and feet are thrust as far under the thwarts as they will go. An adrenaline-fuelled day.
Rafters and kayakers face challenging Class 3 to 4+ rapids on their descent of the Karnali but around the campfire that night, Mahendra describes the athletic and acrobatic feats of a monster fish that goes up the rapids – the golden mahseer. This huge fish – growing up to 100kg – migrates upstream on the Karnali and West Seti rivers to spawn and lay eggs. As winter approaches, the upper reaches turn colder — the signal for the mahseer to migrate downstream again, chasing food.
I examine a juvenile fish caught by a local and admire the golden sheen of the scales that gives it its name. The Karnali and West Seti rivers rank as the top rivers in Nepal for fish species, which local fishermen depend on as a prime source of protein. The mahseer’s power and agility means it’s prized by visiting anglers as a fighting fish. Besides the golden mahseer, there are its chocolate and silver cousins, Himalayan snow trout, and a monster-sized catfish called the goonch.
All are migrating fish. An Indian proposal for a dam on the upper Karnali mentions building a fish ladder, but a crossing would be more like a fish marathon course–negotiating a power station, a long diversion tunnel, and finally a megadam. This is most likely just distracting propaganda put out by the dam-builders. A huge fish like the golden mahseer would never be able to get around fish ladders.
Day five: After passing the confluence with the West Seti River, the Karnali becomes somewhat tamer. This affords us the luxury of taking in the magnificent vistas of towering canyon walls. I train my binoculars on the bird life taking advantage of the Karnali’s bounty: cormorants drying their wings in classic pose, a flock of ruddy shelducks, a pair of woolly-necked storks, a yellow-throated kingfisher, and a fish eagle flapping overhead with a large fish in its talons.
Day six on the river brings eel and chips for breakfast. We’re supplementing our diet with fresh catch from local fishermen and so this large eel has gone from river to repast inside 10 minutes. Bikram tells me this is the most lucrative catch on the river – even more pricey per kilo than golden mahseer. After breakfast, I go for a swim. A big, downriver, upside-down swim, having flipped a kayak. A few of us rafters have swapped with the kayakers to try this tamer stretch but we are found out by the still-powerful currents. I can’t imagine how Neil, the English kayaker on our trip, managed to tackle the huge rapids we experienced upstream. They must have been daunting, if not completely terrifying. I probe him about this, and he admits, with British understatement, to it being ‘a bit technical’.
Safely back in the raft, the now-subdued river gives time to reflect on the nature of the Karnali. The name means ‘turquoise’, though the hue is more glacial green. The canyon walls keep changing. Some sections are bathed in green — covered in ferns — while elsewhere, strange sandstone cliffs are sculpted into odd shapes. It’s certainly the most remote river I’ve seen in Nepal, and the cleanest – I’ve seen only one plastic bottle floating in the water to this point. As a wilderness experience, the Karnali is hard to beat.
The last day on the river is a hard paddle: barely any current, and into a headwind. There are suddenly more kids in the water, swimming up to the raft. More human presence, more buildings – and garbage. Where there are roads, there is garbage. The take-out point is near the town of Chisopani, with a giant suspension bridge — the longest in Nepal — and what seems a bewildering array of shops.
The rafts are swiftly deflated and stacked on the roof of a bus, but I am staying with the Karnali. A major branch now runs through Bardia National Park, close to the Indian border, where I rest up for the next four days.
There I am less lucky with the mosquitoes but the compensations are many, starting with the 30 elephants we watch bathing at a stream, blasting themselves with trunkfuls of water. We see the odd rhino slathering itself in mud as a sunscreen and even a Bengal tiger makes a brief appearance, causing a herd of spotted deer to scatter. I’m told that rare Gangetic dolphins sometimes come as far up the Karnali as Bardia.
Damming the Karnali risks losing all this, turning Bardia into a wasteland. It’s a terrible thought — and on my return to Kathmandu, I seek out Megh Ale, the owner of Ultimate Descents, the outfit that took me down the river. Megh Ale is founder of Nepal River Conservation Trust and is the Karnali’s official Waterkeeper. That’s the name given to community leaders around the world who advocate for locals’ access to clean water from protected watersheds. He is spearheading the campaign to save the Karnali.
“In Nepal, we have over 6,000 rivers and streams, so why can’t we save just one and keep it freeflowing?” he asks. “The Karnali is a very special river – flowing from the Tibetan Plateau to the Gangetic Plains.” He points out that India’s plans to build megadams on the Karnali are tantamount to shooting itself in the foot since the river is a major tributary of the Ganges. In fact, over 70% of the Ganges flow comes from Nepal’s rivers.
“In Nepal, we have huge potential for generating energy from rivers but we need to look at what prosperity means. To make the country prosperous, do we really need to kill all these rivers?” he says. He points to tourism as Nepal’s major income earner – most of which is based on the natural beauty of the country and its wildlife. He suggests creating a Karnali River National Park, taking in the river and a corridor of land along its length, running from the Nepal border with Tibet, all the way to Bardia and the Indian border, where the Karnali empties into the Ganges. That’s the only way, he believes, that the Karnali can retain its majestic wilderness.
–This feature first appeared in modified form in Action Asia Magazine, Hong Kong, September-October 2017 issue.