Other similar rivers, such as the Koshi and Gandaki, have already been developed for hydropower, destroying their ability to provide habitat for some of Nepal’s most iconic freshwater species.
As Nepal loses its river connectivity, the dolphins’ habitat and prey base are devastated. Continued fragmentation of rivers could isolate the remaining dolphins, threatening the ability of this endangered species to reproduce, and change the water depth, reducing the animals’ ability to survive. In other words, dam development in the Karnali basin could be the end of this species in Nepal.
The river dolphin is not the only freshwater species clinging to the Karnali and key tributaries as the last, wild Himalayan habitats. Endangered and culturally significant fish, such as the golden mahseer and giant catfish, both of which can grow to over one hundred pounds each, depend on these connected rivers for their continued survival. As migratory fish, they are especially vulnerable as dams would block their ability to travel to reproduce.
As hydropower development has transformed Nepal’s rivers, the Karnali survives as the only large Himalayan river with good connectivity. But that could change quickly. There are currently over 30 hydropower dam proposals for the Karnali, three of which are major dams—one of which would be the world’s tallest dam.
Any of these dams would permanently change the Karnali: altering its flows, diminishing water quality, impacting riverside beaches, and therefore threatening the species, economies, and cultures that depend on the river as wild as it currently is. In the Upper Karnali River Dam proposal, the water diversion would leave over 40 miles of the Karnali nearly drained. Hydropower is an important part of Nepal’s energy portfolio, but the river dolphins, iconic fish species, and remote communities cannot be forgotten.