Durga Shrestha of Sakhuwa village is worried. There is talk of a new hydropower project on the Bhote Kosi and he is concerned his adventure tourism job will go.
The 102MW Middle Bhote Kosi project is a subsidiary of Chilime Hydropower and will have a gated diversion weir at Chaku, and a powerhouse 7 km downstream at Jambu village. With the feasibility done, construction is set to begin in 2013 and the project will be completed in four years.
The project will be the third hydropower plant on this stretch of the river, and has become the latest example of Nepal's need for energy clashing with tourism. With the country reeling from 16-hour power cuts in winter, the government has declared an energy emergency and encouraged investors in hydropower.
"We hear that if the project is implemented, the river will run dry, so will our jobs," says Durga Shrestha.
The Bhote Kosi has its headwaters in Tibet and cuts through the Himalaya through mighty gorges with steep gradient. With 80 rapids within 21 km, many up to Grade 5, the Bhote Kosi is one of the world's top ten rivers for white water rafting and the venue for many international rafting and kayaking championships. It is also a river prone to glacial lake outburst floods, and there are a dozen lakes upstream in Tibet that could overflow in future because of thawing due to climate change.
Twenty-one rafting companies operate on the Bhote Kosi River, bringing in hundreds of tourists per day during the peak season. The river also has five major resorts along its banks, including The Last Resort, famous for its bungee jumping, and Borderlands Eco Adventure Resort which offers canyoning and rafting. The resorts provide hundreds of jobs for people from surrounding villages.
"Bhote Kosi is a world-class river, important for the local people here and for tourism," explains Megh Ale of the Nepal River Conservation Trust. "If the power house is built at Jambu, it will significantly decrease water volume along the rafting route, and tourism will lose its most important attraction."
Eco-tourism activists have been lobbying to shift the power house a little upstream from Jambu to Sakhuwa, leaving the rafting route intact. Prakash Man Shrestha, of the Madhya Bhote Kosi Jalavidyut Company, says shifting the powerhouse upstream would reduce the head and cut generation capacity by half but costs will decrease only 20 per cent. "It is not economically feasible to build the power house upstream," Shrestha told Nepali Times, adding that the project has offered to help resorts if they need to relocate.
Subash Karmacharya is a former UML member of parliament from Sindhupalchok and was recently appointed to the board of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA). He firmly backs the hydropower project, saying it will help develop the district. "It will bring jobs and a share in its equity," he says. "It will help in local development."
But tourism has also generated jobs. The suspension bridge built by The Last Resort for its bungee jumps saves villagers a five-hour detour. The resorts invest in local health and education.
Says Sankar Jit Tamang of Gathi VDC: "The hydropower project should be constructed in such a way that it does not hamper the tourism industry that has given us so much."
Ale is convinced there is a middle way that will protect rivers while also addressing Nepal's energy deficit. In an adjoining commentary, he advocates dividing rivers into three segments: the higher reaches from 1,200-5,000m for hydropower, from 200-1,200m for tourism and rafting, and below that for irrigation. He also argues that some rivers should be protected in their pristine state and left as free-flowing rivers.
Early this week, the government launched the Hydropower Investment and Development Company (HIDC). With an authorised capital of Rs 500 million and paid up capital of Rs 100 million, HIDC has pulled investments from the government, Employee Provident Fund, National Insurance Company and Citizen Investment Fund and will invest in hydropower projects of over 25MW. "The country needs investment in hydroelectricity but the market's interest rate is very high," explains Energy Minister Gokarna Bista. "This company will fill in as an investor in hydropower projects."
Save our rivers from ourselves, MEGH ALE
Protecting the Karnali, Madi and Tamor as free-flowing rivers will save them for future generations
Roller coaster rides on Nepal's rivers
The wild white waters of Himalayan rivers wait for riders
A Himalayan challenge, AARTI BASNYAT
Whether you want to race your kayak and raft, or just watch, Bhote Kosi is the place next week