Conundrum on the Karnali: Hydropower in Nepal

By Michelle Ng and Emma Karki
Part 1/4 of IWMI’s Voicing Water Visions campaign


The Karnali River has flowed from the Himalayas of Tibet to the Ganges in India since time immemorial. Yet, this river—and the lives of those who rely on it—will soon be irrevocably changed by the Upper Karnali Hydropower Project.


Upper Karnali Hydropower Project



A 900-megawatt hydropower dam on the Karnali River in Western Nepal—the largest hydro-electric power station in the country on its last undammed river.



Hydropower is a cornerstone of Nepal’s development agenda, considered a “passport out of poverty” for this water-rich country.



Upper Karnali will create 3,000 jobs, cost 116 billion Nepali rupees (over USD 1 billion) and export 88% of the electricity generated to India and Bangladesh.



An Indian company won the bid to construct Upper Karnali in 2008 but has been unable to begin construction.


Six residents of Ramaghat, Daba and Asaraghat — the three villages closest to the dam site — documented the parts of their lives and communities that they would want an outsider to understand.


Through images and stories, they shed light on the experiences of those who will be most affected by the project.

  • 1.4 kilometers downstream



Madan, 30, and Sukma, 25, live here with their families. Madan has a husband, two daughters and a son; and Sukma has a husband and four children. Both rely on fishing for a living.




Ramaghat, sandwiched between the Karnali River and a sheer mountainside, is situated 1.4 kilometers downstream from the planned dam site. The residents of Ramaghat are Badi, members of the most disadvantaged caste in Western Nepal. To be Badi is to be considered an “untouchable among the untouchables”: Badis are prohibited from sharing food, water and buildings with people from advantaged castes, and have traditionally relied on making musical instruments and begging to support themselves. Badi women in particular have limited access to social networks, political spaces and public services, which makes their lives especially difficult.


 Click on the highlighted phrases throughout this story to hear the speakers’ views on the topic.


Now, they fish. The residents of Ramaghat settled under a bridge on the Karnali River some years ago. They live at the mercy of the river. When it runs dry, they can’t fish. Although the community has tried other options — extracting sand until there was no more sand and breaking rocks until the market dried up — fishing is their only constant source of income. Fish from the Karnali River signifies not only food but also the ability to pay for medicine, education and other necessities. On the other hand, when the river swells, Ramaghat is at risk of being swept away by a flood or buried by a landslide. Rarely are its residents able to both catch enough fish and feel safe in their homes at the same time. Their village has already been destroyed once before.


A Walk through Ramaghat


Because the Upper Karnali will reduce river flow by 85-90%, the residents of Ramaghat know it will mean the end of their livelihood, the destruction of their homes or both. They are concerned that they lack the skills and resources to find alternatives, but are determined to support their children’s education, no matter what it takes. Yet, they haven’t been invited to any of the planning meetings that the hydropower development company organized for other villages along the Karnali, because neither the government nor the company is obligated to safeguard their welfare before, during or after construction. Although the residents of Ramaghat paid for the land they live on, they were never given legal title. As far as Upper Karnali is concerned, it’s as though they were never there.


“We have no hope that we’ll be settled somewhere,” a woman says, “because that’s how we’ve always been treated.”


Photos from Madan and Sukma

 Click on Madan and Sukma’s names on the left to see their photographs, which they took to describe themselves and their community.


Madan's story, RamaghatSukma's story, Ramaghat


Madan’s hope for the future: “If we could educate our kids, put them in good schools, live in a nice place and be able to learn new things. If we could get our hands on something. But that dream will never come true because we are poor. We don’t have money, we don’t have any means to provide, so our lives will be spent just thinking about things.”


Sukma’s message to the world: “We don’t know anything. Our kids are studying so they know a little bit. Still, we cannot buy notebooks sometimes or pens for them, but they study while they’re hungry and naked. Sometimes they leave at 6 in the morning and come home at 6 in the evening and there’s no food for them. They study hungry. If there is food at home, then I cook. Otherwise, nothing. Only if we worked that day. There will be some rich people who come and say, ‘Why don’t you educate your kids?’ People will say that but they don’t know what we’re going through. We are people who live off of what we earn. Sometimes we don’t get work.”


  • 1.6 kilometers upstream



Rupa, 40, and Jharana, 14, are a mother and daughter living in Daba, where they farm for a living. Rupa’s husband is largely absent due to his alcoholism, so Rupa — though ill — is the primary provider and caretaker for Jharana and her five siblings. Jharana attends school in Ramaghat, where she is in fourth grade alongside much younger students.




Daba village consists of only a few houses spread across a grassy field, just 1.6 kilometers upstream from the dam site. Most residents rely on farming for a living, and some even own land. People fish and tend to kitchen gardens for food, and collect fodder for cattle and firewood from nearby forests. The Karnali River is a source of enjoyment, especially for youth. A solar panel on one house provides the village with limited electricity. Jharana, who is on her period, lingers outside, barred from entering.


A Walk through Daba


Daba village falls within the inundation zone of the Upper Karnali, meaning that it will be almost entirely flooded. As in Ramaghat, residents will lose their homes, their livelihood or both. While the residents of Ramaghat agree that Upper Karnali would negatively impact them, perceptions are split in Daba. On the one hand, displacement will be painful, particularly for those who have lived in the village their entire life. “I will lose my home, land, everything,” one woman says. “Nothing will be left. Everything will be gone.”


Dungeshwor, Surkhet is a government resettlement village, which is often referred to as an example of what resettlement under Upper Karnali might look like.

On the other hand, the hydropower development company has invited men from Daba village to planning meetings and assured them that they will receive compensation for their losses—either in the form of hard cash or a resettlement package. Support from the company can open the door to a better life, such as moving to the Terai, Nepal’s fertile plains, or Surkhet, a nearby city with better educational and economic opportunities.


Residents of Daba have been informed of their compensation status, but many payments have yet to be made. Although the company promised to complete them by June 2017, only 20% of land compensation was made in May 2018. Upon learning that his flooded land would be compensated, one farmer from Daba said, “I have purchased residential land in Surkhet, where I will build our family home. I have given a down payment for the land and six months after that I have to make the final payment. For the latter, I’ll use the money from the land compensation payment. Hence, if the company delays the payment, it will affect my land deals.”


Almost a year later, this farmer continues to await his payment. Meanwhile, some others have already taken their money, packed up and left.


Photos from Jharana

Note: Rupa was unable to photograph due to concerns about her husband.

Jharana's story, Daba


A day in Jharana’s life: “I read, I write, I cook, then I go to school. I study at school. We have our lunch break at 1pm so I play during that time. Then we study again. We finish at 4pm so then I come home. Then I need to go fetch water, I need to cook, I have to light the fire. Then I study again at home.”


  • 3.5 kilometers upstream



Khinta, 45, lives in the surrounding mountains of Asaraghat with her husband and seven other household members. She is the women’s representative for her district and a Dalit, a member of the most disadvantaged caste in Nepal (the most disadvantaged subset of which are Badis). Tek, 38, lives across the bridge with his wife and two children. Since moving from his home village over nine years ago, Tek has been waiting for Upper Karnali to begin construction, which he hopes will offer new opportunities for business and learning.




Asaraghat is located 3.5 kilometers upstream from the Upper Karnali dam site, where homes and terraced fields dot the mountainside. Residents here — like those in Daba — rely primarily on agriculture for a living. Even though land is plentiful, people are not able to do much with it because there are no irrigation systems to transport water from the Karnali River below to the farms above.


A Walk through Asaraghat


Although homes and land here will not be flooded, Upper Karnali poses a dire threat to residents’ livelihoods. Farming is the only skill they have. Three months ago, feeling pressured to gain new skills, they paid someone who had come to their village offering lessons in embroidery, but the person took the money and disappeared. If the hydropower development company privatizes or restricts access to the natural resources on which residents depend, such as water, wood and fodder, they will have no alternatives. “Right now, the forest is a community forest,” a woman explains. “But once the workers arrive, there will be thousands more people but the same amount of resources. We don’t know how it will work.”


Residents of Asaraghat see people from neighboring villages being compensated and are concerned about being left behind. This is especially alarming to women and Dalits, who are familiar with marginalization and already frustrated by limitations on their ability to progress.


After years of waiting, people in Asaraghat live with a sense of uncertainty, unable to act and unsure how to prepare. “It’s been so long with no change that we don’t even know if change will be good or bad for us,” one man says.


Photos from Khinta and Tek

Khinta's story, AsaraghatTek's story, Asaraghat


Khinta’s experience as a woman in politics: “If I get an opportunity, then I will bring change. But we don’t get to do that. We [female representatives] haven’t had an opportunity to see or hear anything. We just go — the five of us — to the ward office that is above the hill over there. We go there, we sit, the five of us. We discuss things if required and then go home in the evening. That’s all. If I get an opportunity, then I would like to improve things and get ahead in this village. If I don’t, then it will stay the same. Right now, I’m a member so maybe next year I’ll be the ward chairperson. After that, the deputy mayor of the rural municipality and the mayor also.”

Note: Tek decided to photograph the 7-kilometer journey from Asaraghat to his home village, where he goes to visit family.


Tek’s reflection on the non-business side of Upper Karnali: “How can you compensate for the quality of air, getting wood for free, water for free, loss of biodiversity? All of this will come to an end. The money is too little to be worth anything outside this village anyways.”


Business Perspectives from Asaraghat

Business people who work in Asaraghat’s small marketplace also have a stake in Upper Karnali. Many have moved from their home villages to the river to set up shop, in the hope that the project would provide much-needed business. Four of these people — working within 50 meters of one another — provide additional perspectives on how Upper Karnali will affect Asaraghat.


Prakash, Health Care Provider

Prakash, Health Care Provider

"If the Upper Karnali gets built, it will be good for the community here. The people here will have access to better facilities and access to roads as well as employment. And if the hydropower gets built and we get electricity, then I can add a lab to provide more services to the people."

Jivika Devi, Shopkeeper

Jivika Devi, Shopkeeper

"Right now, we use firewood and fodder for free, but when the Upper Karnali comes they will sell it and we will have to buy firewood and fodder. Also, not all of the workers will have good intentions—some might do magic and take our sisters away."

Lama Nepali, Tailor

Lama Nepali, Tailor

"I moved here from my village 6-7 years ago with the thought that once the Upper Karnali starts, people will come and it will be good for business. But my hopes were wasted. If this is the state of the hydropower development company, do you really think they’ll come? I don’t trust them. If things stay the same, then it’s time for me to move back home. I don’t get any customers, so I might have to go back and pick up a sickle and spade to sustain myself."

Shyam Prakash, Resin Trader

Shyam Prakash, Resin Trader

"Upper Karnali will be beneficial for the country but for the locals who rely on the river for their livelihoods, the forest, those who fish, those who sell firewood… It will be difficult for them to settle elsewhere. Some will go here, some will go there. They will not be able to live in harmony anymore. It won't make any difference for my business unless there’s pollution once the hydropower starts. Then we’ll have to move."


Impacts of the Upper Karnali

While water may be the cornerstone of hydropower, it is equally the cornerstone of life. The residents of Ramaghat, Daba and Asaraghat will all be profoundly impacted by Upper Karnali. The impacts, however, will vary widely from one village, household and person to the next. People lacking multiple skills or livelihood options are the most vulnerable, especially women and those from lower castes.


People’s expectations of the hydropower development company vary based on the project’s variable effects:

  • The downstream Badi community wants training and employment opportunities in return for their lost fisheries resources.
  • Downstream farming communities want irrigation systems to help them adapt to the 85-90% reduced river flow.
  • Upstream communities want land compensation payments or resettlement packages.
  • Upstream communities want the hydropower development company to construct community infrastructure, such as schools, roads and health centers (the bridge connecting Asaraghat is one such project).

Madan, Sukma, Jharana, Rupa, Khinta and Tek portray the experiences of people who live and work within 5 kilometers of one another. Ramaghat, Daba and Asaraghat are just three of many communities that rely on the Karnali River for food, shelter and livelihoods. Everyone living downstream of the dam will feel the effects of Upper Karnali, from Ramaghat to communities in India.


The office of the hydropower development company near Upper Karnali’s planned dam site sits empty, protected by 24/7 security.

Upper Karnali has been in the works for over 10 years, but construction has yet to begin.

The delays call into question the future of the project, those it affects and Nepal as a whole.


Bam Bdr BC is the chairperson of the Upper Karnali Concerns Committee in Thalpatta village. The hydropower development company created Upper Karnali Concerns Committees in response to resistance from local communities — from padlocking the company’s headquarters in Surkhet to bombing its office at the dam site. There are ten male representatives and one female representative, all of whom were appointed, not elected. Bam describes the bigger picture of the project: How is it affecting Nepal as a nation, as well as local people? What is at stake? What are the options going forward?

  • "The hydropower development company had until September 2018 to acquire financial closure."

    Now it is under pressure from the public to either terminate its contract and leave, or start construction immediately. The government is also under immense pressure to cancel the contract and ask the hydropower development company to leave.

  • "Nepal has a lot of resources, but the country remains poor because the government hasn't developed them."

    Recent road development has brought so many positive changes to the people. Before the road was there, farmers would only collect grass to be sold to others as fodder. After the road was built, people started to build a market place along the road, develop local businesses. If a road has already resulted in these positive changes, hydropower development would certainly do more. But if the government has to start the process of hiring a new developer, it will push the project back by 10 years.

  • "Also, cancelling the contract would tarnish Nepal's image in the international community."

    Projects with the Chinese (Three Gorges) and World Bank (Arun 3) have already been cancelled. We need to ensure that the country is attractive to foreign investment. We need to allow outsiders to do business easily here or else they will not come and invest in Nepal.

  • "Lastly, the 1950 treaty states that Nepal must give priority to India for development projects using natural resources."

    This history and obligation to look to India first makes it difficult for the Government of Nepal to terminate the contract with the hydropower development company and look elsewhere.

Bam predicts that the government will provide an extension for the hydropower development company to achieve financial closure in spring 2019. Until then, there’s nothing anyone can do but wait.



For More Information about Hydropower in Nepal

Nepal and socially just hydropower (Asia Times)

Nepal and socially just hydropower (Asia Times)

"How do you ensure that a hydropower project distributes benefits equitably and protects the rights of those most directly affected by construction?"

The importance of local voices in Nepal's hydropower projects (Third Pole)

The importance of local voices in Nepal's hydropower projects (Third Pole)

"A trip along the Karnali river, where a major hydro electric project is planned, showcases how different communities are impacted, and who can negotiate, and who cannot."

Upper Karnali HEP (Government of Nepal)

Upper Karnali HEP (Government of Nepal)

Information about features, expected benefits, milestones, project cycle, challenges and the way forward.

2018 Hydropower Status Report (International Hydropower Association)

2018 Hydropower Status Report (International Hydropower Association)

"Now in its fifth edition, the report provides information and statistics on installed capacity and estimated generation by country and by region, articles by leading energy and environment ministers, and results of a sector-wide survey on the future of hydropower."

Spatial politics and local alliances shaping Nepal hydropower (World Development)

Spatial politics and local alliances shaping Nepal hydropower (World Development)

"The paper highlights: 1) the role of private sector actor as an ad-hoc decision maker in hydropower development in the country; 2) how hydropower development is perceived by those who will be most affected; and 3) how the two shape the localized dynamics in hydropower decision making."

IWMI’s research on the Upper Karnali Hydropower Project was conducted through the Digo Jal Bikas project, led by Dr. Luna Bharati with generous funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Thank you to the residents of Ramaghat, Daba and Asaraghat — especially Madan, Sukma, Jharana, Rupa, Khinta and Tek — for their telling of their stories. Thanks also to Dominique Perera, Nathan Russell, Sharmani Gunawardena, Om Acharya and Saroj for their work in helping to share the story.