Next week the Supreme Court of Nepal will hear a case focused on whether to move forward with construction of hydropower dams on the Karnali River, the country’s last major river that remains undammed. The case requires the Court to grapple with a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between two national objectives:
(1) Growing the Nepalese economy with the abundant low-carbon electricity generated from hydropower dams on its rivers;
(2) Maintaining healthy, natural rivers crucial to a range of cultural traditions and environmental resources – valuable in their own right, but also underpinning the significant economic potential of nature tourism.
Tough choice, right? Yes…except these are not irreconcilable aims.
While not easy, they can be reconciled if tackled at the right scale of geography. The Supreme Court decision could help move the debate away from the scale of conflict and toward the scale of solutions.
And at that latter scale, we’ll see that Nepal can have both abundant, low-carbon electricity and a healthy, free-flowing Karnali River.
To explain how, let’s start with the basics. At heart, this is a debate about how best to use the bounty produced from the combination of two key ingredients: elevation and water. The Karnali River basin has these ingredients in abundance, as does the entire country of Nepal.
Elevation and plentiful water are the fundamental components for hydropower and, in fact, Nepal generates more than 95% of its electricity from hydropower. The country is also planning to increase its generation capacity several times over in the next few decades and also looks to hydropower for nearly all of that expansion.
But elevation and abundant water are also primary ingredients for a number of other benefits. Rivers coursing off the Tibetan plateau carve dramatic canyons and have been viewed as holy entities for millennia. In the valleys below, these rivers replenish the groundwater under floodplains and they deliver sediment and nutrients to renew the productivity of lowland agriculture and fisheries. They form long networks of connected and complex channels for migratory fish and, when they surge out onto the plains of southern Nepal, they have the energy to create habitat features essential for wildlife, ranging from rhinos to river dolphins.