The Mahakali

The case for a free-flowing Mahakali River in India and Nepal

26-03-2020 - 6 minutes, 39 seconds

On a still evening sitting beside a placid stretch of the Mahakali River, some three or four days into our kayak-supported journey downstream, Emmanuel Theophilus (“Theo”) shared with me a piece of wisdom that forever altered my perspective on rivers.

Rivers, Theo said, are like the central narrator in whatever landscapes they pass through. Their role is so fundamental to the ecosystems they support that they become integral to the ecology of the land that surrounds them. The network of a river system, Theo told those of us gathered around the fire that evening, was like a great circulatory system, conveying energy up and down its course as it journeys from the snowcapped peaks to the ocean.

I had come to India a few years previously as a student and became deeply enamored with mountain rivers while filming a short documentary about the threatened Teesta River. The time I spent in Sikkim along the Teesta’s lush banks impressed upon me how few rivers in the Himalaya, and around the world flowed naturally and unhindered to the sea.

I returned to India a few years later where a serendipitous meeting brought me into contact with Ing-Marie Putka and Anvesh Thapa, who together run Expeditions India, a socially- and environmentally-mindful river guiding company based in Uttarakhand. It was they who first introduced me to the Mahakali.

The Mahakali, after joining with the Karnali River in the plains of northern India, is the single largest contributor of water to the entire Ganges River Basin. It is also one of the last “free-flowing” rivers, with no major dam along the upper reaches of its main stem. Over the last half century, as dams have sprung up on Himalayan Rivers at a shocking rate, the Mahakali has remained untouched primarily for one geopolitical reason: among its many roles, the river also serves as the international border between India and Nepal.

Although plans for the massive Pancheshwar Dam have been on the table for nearly a quarter century, the two countries have remained in dispute over the sharing of construction costs and distribution of irrigation water and hydroelectricity the project would provide. Still, the project has made steady, if languid, progress through the various bureaucratic hurdles and geopolitical compromises required for a project of such magnitude.

As Ing-Marie, Anvesh, and I planned our journey to the Mahakali, the general consensus was that the project had turned a corner into a new phase and the likelihood of its being built was increasing by the day. Perhaps because plans for the dam, which would be the largest in the world, had languished for so long, the general public seemed relatively unperturbed by the new developments.

When I finally arrived in Uttarakhand to begin our long-anticipated journey, I met our team on the banks of the Kali as we prepared gear and packed our kayaks. Anvesh would lead the trip, having completed dozens of expeditions down the Mahakali during his time as a guide in the region, and we would be joined by Pramod, an up-and-coming kayaker from Rishikesh with a river-wide smile, who would serve as safety kayaker.

Theo was the final addition to our team and having lived in the river basin for the past twenty years working as an ecologist, researcher, and teacher, he quickly became our journey’s central narrator, describing the landscape, people, flora, and fauna as we made our way downstream. Although Theo had hiked along much of the river’s course a few years previously, this was his first time experiencing the Mahakali from a kayak. And so the exchange of knowledge was not completely one-sided, as Anvesh and Pramod instructed Theo on how to read the river, where his hands should be placed on the paddle, and took it in turns to rescue Theo from the thrashing waves when his boat overturned.

As we made our way downstream towards the site of the proposed Pancheshwar Dam, I began to perceive that my river companions, having spent decades exploring this waterway, were determined to soak in every last detail of our journey, to commit each bend of the river to memory. The knowledge that we could be some of the last people to witness the canyons we floated through, that every tree and stone, every village and rapid we passed could soon be submerged, presided heavily over our conversations.

Each evening, surrounded by the seductive thrum of insects and the coursing river, we wondered aloud what would happen if the narrator ceased to speak. What would happen to the people and their livelihoods, the wildlife, the mountainsides if the voice of the river was stifled?

The sheer magnitude of the proposed dam ensured that hundreds of miles of canyon would be submerged, displacing tens of thousands of people from villages and farms that had thrived for millennia.

On top of all this, Theo spoke to us about the effects that would ripple downstream. The dam at Pancheshwar would starve the plains of sediment and destroy one of the last remaining intact floodplains that in turn supported elephants, tigers, and rhino, holding their species from the brink of extinction. He told us of the threat of earthquakes in the region and the danger a dam of this magnitude would pose to those downstream.

Perhaps most importantly, Theo spoke about how little need there was for the dam and how it would only benefit people hundreds of miles away in India’s urban metropolis. He instead expressed the opinion that the dam would be built because our world still labored under the belief that any and all development is an intrinsic good, no matter the enormous costs that would be born.

One afternoon, we passed a dripping-wet fishing cat basking on the riverbank, which slinked away through the river-smoothed boulders before I could wrestle my camera out of its waterproof bag. We floated beneath overhanging walls of ferns and held our mouths open to the dripping springs that filtered out of the limestone. Around every bend was a terraced field and a small village built into the steep hillsides. These were communities that did not survive at the expense of the resources around them, but thrived in tandem with the Mahakali, relying on the river but never robbing it of its wild quality and its right to flow.

On our last day, I sat in my kayak as we floated quietly downstream and listened. As the calls of birds, chirps of insects, and the rustle of wind in the trees reached my ears, I pictured the river as a conductor of a mighty symphony. I closed my eyes and basked in the Mahakali’s music, until slowly a rhythmic pounding began to invade the soundscape that surrounded me.

Around the next bend, we came upon a construction crew carving into the hillside above the river, paving the way for a road that might in the near future transport massive hydroelectric turbines and truckloads of concrete. In an instant, the harmony we had enjoyed was broken and the fragility of the landscape that had embraced us over the previous ten days was laid bare and the threat to the Mahakali became very real.

Today the project’s steady progress continues, but the voices of those who live along the river are growing louder. Those weary of the dam are organizing themselves in opposition, filing letters of complaint, protesting illegal meetings, and sharing stories from the Mahakali in an effort to show how valuable the river is in its free-flowing state.

Theo’s words about a river as a central narrator reframed the way I view the fight to conserve rivers. I no longer think of what we might lose should our rivers be dammed or dwindle in the face of climate change; instead, I think of what we will gain and what we will continue to enjoy for generations to come if we protect our rivers and prescribe to them the intrinsic value they deserve.