Faith to reality


Mount Kailash in southwestern Tibet is the source of some of the largest rivers in Asia: the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej, the Indus and the Karnali. 

Revered as one of the most holy places by Hindus, Buddhists, Bons and Jains, Kailash is a place many millions desire to visit before they die but only thousands make it every year due to its inaccessibility. 

The Karnali is the longest river of Nepal, flowing from the north to south through deep gorges to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where it meets the Ganga. It is called the Ghaghara in India—the largest tributary of the Ganga by volume.

Read also: Part 2: Dams and dreams a journey down the Karnali

In Tibet, the Karnali is called Mapcha Khambab, which means ‘the river that originates from the peacock’s mouth’. Little is known about the exact source of the Karnali.’s Nepal Editor Ramesh Bhushal and photographer Nabin Baral travelled with a team of scientists to locate the river’s source and follow it from Tibet to its confluence with the Ganga in India. As part of the first scientific expedition of its kind, they travelled 1,100 kilometres over six weeks by jeep, raft and on foot through some of the most remote areas of the Himalayas. 

Part of the massive infrastructure development underway in the Himalaya, preparations are on to dam the Upper Karnali in Nepal for a hydropower project – the first dam on Nepal’s last free flowing river. The river is already under high stress from floods and erosion in India’s Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. All this is exacerbated by climate change. The challenges ahead are clear, but unpredictable in scale.

In this five part series we explore the environmental and economic changes transforming the river system, and the challenges facing people living along its banks.  


Part I

Living in fear of floods

Tibet’s development boom has left downstream Nepal more vulnerable to floods and dam collapse

Preparing soup for her grandson under a dim solar powered bulb, 50-year-old Pema Angmo explained how frightening life is on the bank of Karnali river in western Nepal’s Hilsa village, on the border of Tibet. Large embankments protect the huge immigration office and villages in Tibet, but Nepalis on the other bank are left without any protection from floods in place. 

“I tell my relatives in Tibet that the embankments protect you, but the gods protect us Nepalis,” she smiled. About two decades ago, she started the first lodge on the flood plains of the Karnali River, which originates about 80km northwest in Tibet. Now there are dozens of guest houses. This small town is the last stop in Nepal for pilgrims visiting Mount Kailash.

Hilsa: Hilsa is a small seasonal town in Nepal- Tibet border where the Mapchakhambab river becomes Karnali. Most of the people have hotel business as the pilgirms and tourists especially from India use this route to go to Mount Kailash. During the winter the hoteliers shut down and move down to lower elevation as it snows thick and then return back in March/ April once the tourist season starts and stay till September/ October. Photo: NABIN BARAL

The scale of potential flood threats along the Karnali River is clear from the large embankments constructed in the traditional trading hub of Burang (Taklakot) in China, 30km northwest of Hilsa. The Mapcha Khambab becomes the Karnali once it enters Nepal.

Read also: 

Part 3: Climate denial in the Himalaya

Part 4: Dancing with the river

Part 5: A Karnali portrait 

Born in Tibet, Pema fell in love with a Nepali from Hepka village in Humla and they married 30 years ago. In that time, Tibet has seen unprecedented development, but Nepal has remained the same. Blacktopped roads have made road travel much easier in Tibet, and many pilgrims, mostly from India, now flock to Hilsa in summer on small planes and helicopters from Nepalganj. 

Hindus believe Lord Shiva meditated on Mt Kailash, and some 15,000 Indian pilgrims took this route this year. The sound of helicopters wake us up every morning as they land and take off every few minutes near Pema’s hotel. 

While business is getting better, people are worried about how to protect their hard earned property from the floods and disasters that may come in future. “It took two decades to build these two buildings, but it won’t take a minute to destroy them if there is a big flood or a dam bursts upstream,” Pema added.

Mount Kailash: Mount Kailash region in southwestern Tibet is the source of some of the largest rivers in Asia. Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus and Karnali/Ghaghara and orginate from east, west, north and south of the Kailash range.Kailash is revered as the holy place by Hindus, Buddhist, Bons and Jains. Photo: NABIN BARAL
Mansarovar lake (God’s lake) south of Mount Kailash in Tibet, China. Photo: NABIN BARAL

The Chinese have built a hydropower dam a few kilometres upstream on the Karnali. This has improved the lives of Tibetans by bringing electricity, but increased fear among the Nepalis living next to the border. 

There is hardly any communication between local people and the Chinese authorities, and Nepali officials do not listen to them. “We face serious problems, but the leaders in Kathmandu do not losten to us,” said Amar Lama, another lodge owner in HIlsa.

Over the past years, Hilsa has welcomed the prime minister and other leaders and pleaded for electricity. Two years ago Pushpa Kamal Dahal inaugurated a bridge across the Karnali to Tibet, and promised to send a team of experts for a hydropower project in Nepal on a tributary of the Karnali River. There is no sign work has started. 

“Prime ministers and ministers fly here, make promises and go to Kailash with their family. Once they fly back, they forget everything. I am really angry, you know, please tell them if you meet them,” Pema Angmo said. 

Out of 77 districts of Nepal, Humla is the last one without a road

After a couple of weeks walking along the river to the south, we met Mahendra Bahadur Shahi, the Chief Minister of Karnali province and asked him if there were any plans to address the problems people face. He talked about a railway to China, but not about roads, embankments or electricity.


“We are talking with the Chinese about a railway link,” Shahi said. “We have had a few rounds of bilateral talks in past few months.” 

Hilsa also faces landslide risk. “We are trapped but we can’t leave this place,” adds Pema, who built her lodge from a couple of tents three decades ago. Now she has three buildings with about 50 rooms. “This is the only property we have and it’s our future but it’s at risk,” she says. 

Constructions in Burang on the bank of Karanali River. The city is the capital of Burang county and rapdigly growing which is protected by huge embankments. Photo: NABIN BARAL

In 2012 a landslide killed four people in a single family, including a mother and children, in the town. “It looks beautiful now, but the mountains are hard to live in,” she says.

Apart from floods and landslides, studies warn that a mega earthquake is long overdue in Nepal’s western region. 

Taklakot/Purang/ Burang: Popularly known in Nepal as Taklakot, it is the largest city along the Mapchakhambab river before entering Nepal. The trade hub for Nepalis from Humla and Darchula in Nepal and Indians from Dharchula. It is the capital of Burang County. Photo: NABIN BARAL

People in Hilsa used to drink water from the Karnali in the past but with the development boom in Burang, this is no longer safe. “Now it is polluted by sewage upstream,” Pema said. Now, Hilsa brings water from a nearby spring into their homes through pipes.

Still shrouded in darkness, with no road connection or mobile network, Hilsa faces the challenge of too little development, and the contrast on the the other side of the river is stark.

The story is jointly published by Nepali Times and The Third Pole. Subsequent instalments of this five-part series will appear from 8-11 January.

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