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Introduction

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.

Mount Kailash in Tibet, source of the Karnali and three other large rivers of Asia [image by Nabin Baral]

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.

In Tibet, the spiritual source of 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.

thethirdpole.net’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 1,000 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 Himalayas, 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.

This story is jointly published by thethirdpole.net and Nepali Times

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

Part 1: Living in fear of floods

Part 2: Dams and dreams – a journey down the Karnali

Part 3: Ignoring climate change in the Himalayas

Part 4: Dancing with the river in India

Part 5: The wild Karnali in photos

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