Our Campaign

Save the Karnali Project

The Karnali River is the last free-flowing river in Nepal, and home to community subsistence fishing, abundant wildlife -including Ganges river dolphins, crocodile, Bengal tiger, numerous bird and terrestrial species, along with the golden mahseer, a prized sport fish, and some of the world’s best whitewater rafting. Unfortunately the Karnali is also targeted for major hydropower development. One of the major projects, the Upper Karnali Hydropower project, a 900 MW Hydroelectric dam proposed by an Indian company for selling power primarily to Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, India, would dewater over 50km of the river by forcing the entire flow through a massive underground tunnel, shortcutting a long sharp bend in the river. Fish passage would not be possible in this design.

This project would not benefit Nepal or local communities. The lengthy transmission lines would create substantial losses in electricity, and other hydro projects underway in the region will soon be able to meet any regional increases in electricity demand. Instead of extractive industries that offer little economic benefits beyond the construction phase, instead leaving long-term destruction of valuable natural resources, the communities along the Karnali need to create a sustainable future that prioritizes the health of the river, the communities and their surrounding environment. Eco tourism has great potential in the area, as the popularity of rafting, kayaking, trekking, fly fishing and other forms of adventure grow in popularity.

Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT), Waterkeeper Alliance (WKA) and partner organizations will build public awareness and valuation of the Karnali as a free-flowing river and implement a multi-pronged approach to pressure the Nepal government and project proponents of the Upper Karnali Hydropower Project  along with other planned projects, to abandon their plans and to deny necessary permits for the hydropower dam.

The project is built around four pillars:

  1. Building public awareness of the value of a free-flowing Karnali River, in Karnali River communities, in Kathmandu, throughout Nepal, as well as internationally.
  2. Working in Karnali River communities to build a vision for a sustainable future for the region that prioritizes sustainable development that exists in harmony with a healthy, free-flowing Karnali river.
  3. Expanding and communicating scientific knowledge of essential river processes, fish and wildlife needs, while further establishing ecosystem preservation policies and activities (example: Mahseer Conservation Area)
  4. Conducting legal advocacy, grassroots advocacy, financial advocacy and international communications to build public demand for saving the Karnali while pressuring courts, ministries and potential financiers to protect the river from the planned hydropower dam.

To anchor the project, the groups will grow a broad coalition under the name “Save the Karnali” and will promote this brand to gather strength for the campaign. Specific outreach activities include showing a new documentary film on the Karnali River in Kathmandu and online, revamping and promoting the Karnaliriver.org website, and creating and distributing campaign materials in Nepal and elsewhere while supporting these actions with international communications from WKA. In addition, NRCT will hold workshops for policy makers, planners, outdoor recreation businesses and citizens (youth, students, etc.)

NRCT will establish a presence on the ground in the Karnali, building friends and allies there. NRCT staff will meet with local and Indigenous leaders and their communities to build trust and support to oppose hydropower development, while encouraging sustainable development in the area. NRCT will launch a new Ecotourism Center that will help train area youth with useful skills in river recreation, adventure travel and eco-tourism industries. NRCT and WKA will also coordinate with international adventure travel businesses and brands to promote saving the Karnali.

To demonstrate the value of a free flowing Karnali, NRCT will conduct a high-profile multi-day wilderness paddle race ‘The Great Karnali Quest’ in 2022 through a stretch of the river that would be dewatered by the proposed hydro power dam. In 2021 NRCT will hold a precursor kayak-only event that will be easier to accomplish during potential COVID restrictions.

The groups will also develop a credible and scientifically sound narrative for protecting a free-flowing Karnali, highlighting the needs of migratory fish, particularly the golden mahseer, an endangered but valuable and popular subsistence and game fish.

The groups will apply pressure through various advocacy channels to deny permits and financing for the dam construction.  Importantly this will include advocacy to ministers in Bangladesh, where the power would be purchased. To apply pressure directly to the Nepal government, the groups will send international letters to Nepali ministers, and call for direct meetings (that could include Waterkeeper Alliance staff and/or leadership, COVID travel restrictions permitting). NRCT will engage attorneys to analyze the permitting process to identify deficiencies with the environmental assessment, prior consultation or other processes to look for opportunities to use the Nepali courts to deny licenses and permits.

General Objectives:

To protect a Free Flowing Karnali River by defeating the Upper Karnali Hydropower Project and other planned projects in the mainstem.

  • Revamp Karnaliriver.org website with new aspects of campaign
  • Promote existing documentary video, online petition
  • Develop a prospectus for Mahseer Conservation Area
  • Produce/translate/publish hard copies of campaign documents in Nepali (~100 pages total)
    • Karnali River Framework,
    • Conservation Plan for River Conservation in Nepal – documents in Nepali
    • Make short fact sheets, key findings, leaflets and pamphlets in English and Nepali.
    • Posters
  • Work with Waterkeeper Alliance to conduct digital outreach to adventure travel services and global fishing guides
  • Conduct online dialogs on Zoom/Microsoft Teams (to replace in-person seminars in plan)
  • Conduct an online River Dialog twice per month.
  • Conduct Zoom classes and/or (potentially) small gatherings (20-25 at a time, on river) depending on COVID situation.
  • Targeting 350 river guides in Nepal
    • Workshops to turn river guides, company owners into river conservationists.
  • Work with Waterkeeper Alliance in coordination with lawyers at American College of Environmental Lawyers to develop a legal strategy
Show NRCT’s new documentary film in Kathmandu and promote online and promote Save the Karnali as a brand. 1000 people are more aware of the need to protect the last free-flowing river in Nepal 4 public showings/discussions in first year of project, pivot to online showings and discussions if COVID precautions prohibit in-person showing
Launch a new radio program on protecting Nepal’s rivers with a focus on the Karnali Listeners (30% of the total population from the Karnali region) educated on the value of the Karnali River and the fight to protect it.

Listeners are more likely take an opposition position to the dam

24 radio episodes aired through different radio stations
Launch a Save the Karnali petition (Online and/or paper/banner petitions)

●        In Nepal

●        Internationally

Government and ministers feel increased social pressure to save the free flowing Karnali Over 10,000 petition signers in Nepal

10,000 petition signers internationally

Delivery to government ministers

Revamp Karnaliriver.org website Effective branding the campaign, and a useful repository for news updates related to protecting the Karnali River New website launched
Establish presence on the ground in Karnali, build friends and allies. Meet with local and Indigenous leaders and their communities Relationships built with community leaders to forge partnerships and tell authentic stories to protect the Karnali 4 trips per year to the region

15 meetings with local leaders,

5 testimonials for protecting the Karnali


Hold workshops for policy makers, planners, outdoor recreation business and citizens (youth, students, etc) 400 people better understand the need to protect the Karnali and support the vision for a sustainable future 8 workshops/year create deeper understanding on what is at stake and an alternative vision for a sustainable future
Create and distribute campaign materials in Nepal and elsewhere. Growing international demand to protect the Karnali

Improved local understanding of the value of the river

Effective and useful campaign materials that help tell the story of the Karnali and convey a strong movement to protect it
Outreach to adventure travel services and global fishing guides (US and Europe) Building international pressure to protect free flowing Karnali.
Tourism ministers understand potential of a free flowing Karnali
20-30 Adventure travel guide/outfitters contacted;

10-12 enlisted in campaign;

2-5 join in travel to region

5 outdoor gear/sportsfishing brands adopt “Save the Karnali” messages (Patagonia, etc)

Pilot launch an Eco Tourism Center with youth training program



Community and tourism ministries understand the potential for local jobs and businesses connected to a free flowing Karnali Launch event

150 youth trained in river recreation/ecotourism;

Business plan created

Host River Radio programs Better community awareness, political awareness in Kathmdu and international pressure twice monthly radio programs in Kathmandu/Karnali Region and online
Create a prospectus for a Mahseer conservation area Communicate a roadmap to create a conservation area compatible with eco tourism that underpins scientifically supported conservation needs and the need for a free flowing Karnali River Prospectus published and shared
Create a prospectus for promoting small scale hydro and solar in region Alternative vision shared for community level power generation published and shared
Promote and hold Karnali Kayak race in November 2021; Rafting Race November 2022

●        Film creation, social media, blog writing

●        WKA staff to attend race launch and finish

●        Concurrent eco-tourism, catch and release fishing expedition?

●        “Artful Activism” event at launch creates powerful visuals

String and memorable images and stories created to draw international attention and pressure to protect the Karnali. Promotional communications,

20 teams entered in event,

Successful race event and ecotourism expedition,

Event is documented with film, photos and testimonials

Communications to draw attention to plight of the Karnali and growing movement  to save it

Formation of youth/ community groups in each riverine community along the key stretches of Karnali river Members of the groups are empowered, trained in conservation and draw attention for sustainable river uses and Karnali River conservation 15 Community/youth groups formed