Next week Nepal’s Supreme Court is hearing a case that centers on whether to proceed with the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Karnali River, the country’s last major river. The Court’s decision will go a long way towards resolving the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between two national objectives:
(1) boosting the Nepalese economy with abundant low-carbon electricity generated from hydroelectric dams on its rivers;
(2) Maintaining healthy, natural rivers is vital to a range of cultural traditions and environmental resources – valuable in itself, but also underlies the significant economic potential of nature tourism.
Tough choice, isn’t it? Yes…except that they are not incompatible goals.
Although it is not easy, but it can be resolved if tackled at the right scale of geography. The Supreme Court’s decision can help move the debate from the scale of conflict to the scale of resolution.
And on that latter scale, we’ll see that Nepal could have 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 to best use the reward generated by the combination of two key ingredients: altitude and water. These materials are abundant in the Karnali river basin, as are the rest of the country of Nepal.
Altitude and abundant water are fundamental factors for hydropower, and in fact, Nepal generates over 95% of its electricity from hydropower. The country is also planning to increase its generation capacity manifold over the next few decades and is eyeing hydropower for almost the entire expansion.
But altitude and abundant water are primary elements for many other benefits as well. The rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau carve dramatic gorges and have been seen as sacred entities for millennia. In the lower valleys, these rivers replenish groundwater below 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 grow on the plains of southern Nepal, they have the energy to create essential habitat features for wildlife ranging from rhinos to river dolphins.
And thus, given what they create when mixed together, water and altitude are also key elements that underpin nature tourism: trekking, fishing and rafting.
These diverse values – from hydropower to rhinos to rafting – that emerge from the alchemy of altitude and water can co-exist at the scale of a nation or even at the scale of a river basin. It is difficult for them to coexist at the scale of a single river.
A river dammed for hydropower would generally be inaccessible to migratory fish. Hydrocurrents formed in mountain valleys usually form fairly long reservoirs of calm water or, conversely, areas that are nearly waterless (due to deflection). Any change, when superimposed on a section of whitewater rapids, is incompatible with world-class rafting.
These conflicting futures for the Karnali River are at the heart of the current Supreme Court case. The Karnali is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the Himalayas and the last of the major rivers in Nepal without a dam. In its current form, the river offers some of the best rafting and kayaking in Asia and provides habitat for migratory fish including the iconic megafish, the golden masher. As it flows through lowland floodplains, the energetic Karnali creates a complex mosaic of habitats, including grasslands and islands of oxbow lakes that are essential for the Greater one-horned rhinoceros. The lower reaches are also home to critically endangered gharials and the largest population of river dolphins in Nepal.
These diverse environmental and cultural values have inspired the government, communities and organizations in the province to advance the vision of a “Green Karnali”, which shares the name of the river. His plan proposes a healthy Karnali River that would serve as the center of regional tourism based on natural and cultural assets that are becoming increasingly scarce across Asia and the rest of the world.
Securing the Green Karnali may enable the province to capture a greater share of the growing global demand for tourism focused on natural and cultural resources. Karnali province could follow in the footsteps of Costa Rica, which protected most of its forests and rivers and is now synonymous with nature-based tourism, which accounts for about 13% of its GDP (before the pandemic) and foreign exchange The biggest source. ,
But Karnali also has great potential for hydropower, with several large dams proposed across the main river.
The opposing viewpoints of Green Karnali v. Harness Karnali now meet in the Supreme Court, as the court is hearing a lawsuit brought by river advocates based on Nepal’s constitutional guarantee of citizens’ rights to a healthy environment.
As mentioned above, when such conflicts collide in the same riverine region, competition becomes a zero-sum game. But if this area can be expanded, say to the entire country, then a wider range of solutions emerges and valid win-win, balanced outcomes become possible.
I was part of the research team that explored this relationship between the expansion of geographic scale and the ability to find balanced solutions. We examined a wide range of options for meeting Nepal’s future electricity demands with low-carbon, low-cost electricity and then asked, what are some of these options that would allow Nepal to make the most of its current assets of other value? Will be allowed to retain the share. from rivers?
For this research, a group of Nepalese experts defined “rivers with high conservation value” and then mapped these rivers across the country. It is no surprise that Karnali emerged as one of the highest ranked rivers based on experts’ criteria and data compiled to evaluate the country’s river systems.
Then an energy research team from the University of California, Berkeley, developed a sophisticated model of the Nepalese grid and simulated alternatives to meet projected electricity demand in 2040. The model was selected from among a pool of potential investments to build generation, storage and transmission projects. a working grid; What changed in these options was the cost.
Using this model, we can run simulations based on different policy options, such as the option of avoiding new hydroelectric dams in certain regions or on certain rivers. The model output will tell us how much these policy options will affect the cost of Nepal’s future electricity system.
For example, we found that avoiding building hydroelectric dams in national parks (about one-quarter of Nepal’s proposed dams are within park boundaries) would increase system costs by only 2% (essentially an unobserved rounding error, this Given that energy development has to deal with a range of cost uncertainties that far exceed this difference).
Most relevant to the ongoing Supreme Court case, we also examine the policy option of leaving the Karnali main stream undisturbed.
Result? Avoiding building a hydroelectric dam on the main stream Karnali would have essentially zero impact on the electricity system cost for Nepal. This result is possible because: (1) Nepal has such a large pool of potential hydroelectric dams that many other similar hydroelectric options exist on other rivers, including already dammed rivers as well as tributaries of the Karnali Are included; and (2) wind and solar PV – now the cheapest forms of electricity generation in most parts of the world – are becoming increasingly cost competitive in Nepal.
This research provides a very optimistic insight for the people of Nepal. Their country can retain the diverse values of Karnali – the river can serve as the centerpiece of an economically valuable “Green Karnali” destination –And Power your economy with low cost, low carbon electricity.
This national-level approach to balancing hydropower with healthy rivers will allow Nepal to demonstrate a sustainable future, with an energy system that is both clean and green.