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September 20, 2017

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Hydropower threatens to neuter Nepal's whitewater rapids

KATHMANDU--The Bhote Koshi river rises in Tibet and cuts a mighty swathe through the Himalayas, carving out gorges as it tumbles into Nepal in a series of thundering rapids.

Regarded as one of the best waterways in the world for whitewater rafting, the river attracts thrill-seekers of all nationalities, keen to test their mettle in the adrenaline-pumping sport.

Since the end of Nepal's 10-year civil war in 2006, a surge in popularity has made rafting a multi-million dollar industry and a vital contributor to tourism in the impoverished nation.

But many sections of Nepal's famed river network could soon be tamed as the energy-starved country plans a huge expansion in hydro-electricity in the face of a shortage that has brought power cuts lasting up to 16 hours a day.

"When people talk about whitewater rafting, they think of the Bhote Koshi river. It is for adventure seekers what Everest and Annapurna are for climbers," said Megh Ale, president of the Nepal River Conservation Trust.

"So, it is the world's heritage — not only Nepal's. We are not against development in itself. But the government should clearly state which river is for what."

Experts say Nepal's mountain river system could be generating 83,000 megawatts of power. The nation currently produces a paltry 692 megawatts.

Nepal's dire power shortage has crippled industry and dissuaded foreign investment, with crucial infrastructure development having ground to a halt in the years of political paralysis following the 1996-2006 Maoist insurgency.

The country has 23 hydropower plants, according to the Independent Power Producers' Association Nepal, but a further 36 have been mooted or are already being built.

Pleasure or Progress?

One plant under construction on the Bhote Koshi will include a gated weir near the Tibetan border, choking the fast flow of water for rafters, many of whom have expressed horror at the threat to their sport.

Five major resorts and 21 rafting companies operate along its banks, bringing in more than 100,000 tourists a year and providing hundreds of jobs.

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