Monday, 2 October, 2023

Karnali Dreams


Mahesh Neupane

To mark the 59th Engineer’s Day in Nepal, I have put forth my vision for the development of the remote five Himalayan districts of Karnali province of Nepal. I have been exploring all of the five districts of this province namely, Humla, Jumla, Dolpa, Mugu, and Kalikot, for the last four years as a part of my work. My vision for the development of this region comes along with a list of development opportunities hidden for years within the challenges.

It is important to understand Upper Karnali; its uniqueness and my approach to this pristine region. Upper Karnali is best understood as the least developed part of Nepal. Lagging far behind in terms of infrastructure and human development, the most developed district among the five, Jumla, is also deprived of electricity and not yet connected to the national electricity grid network.
Unfortunately, two of the districts, Humla and Dolpa, have not been connected to the central road network to date. The lack of other fundamental requirements like drinking water supply and education explicitly portrays its real development scenario. The entire zone is facilitated with a very limited number of improved basic services for a better livelihood than any human is entitled to have.

Karnali Academy of Health Sciences (KAHS) hospital in Jumla serves as the only hospital with advanced health services for the upper Karnali province. The gross agro-production merely meets the quarterly fodder demand of the region, due to the lack of cultivable lands in the Himalayan region. Education has a silver lining with schools having classes up to Grade 10 and 12, providing education to the far remote corners of the region.
With mobile networks gradually increasing their coverage, penetration and usage are yet another key benefits. There could be a lot to elaborate on the people's figure, fate and irony, but I will restrict the description of this development lag for now to the basic services of health, education, food and shelter, which are of the highest concern.

Wait a minute!!! Are we missing something important? Do I need to mention the culture which preserves the identity of the place and the entire nation, that it is rich in? Or shouldn't I be mentioning the pristine nature and sublime culture in its virgin state, which is yet left undisturbed due to the lack of penetration of infrastructural development? Shouldn't I put a thought on the place of development of the Khas-Aryan clan that is now 'claimed' as the elite ones to rule the country and so on? Hope you have caught and sensed my theme by now. What I mean to say is- I see more opportunities than the suffering, I can see the sparkling treasures hidden within the caves of Himalayan rocks…. Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to give you that treasure, that can make us rich in no time. Here, you may find me crazy for comparing the potential of Karnali to the beauty of Switzerland. However, it is possible, for I have witnessed the development in both places, and yes, I do envision with confidence that Karnali can be developed to that extent to become a development emblem.

Connecting With Roadways
Just imagine accessing the lush paradise of a green Himalayan terrain accessed by contoured black-topped wide roads with dividers, solar lights, roadside barriers, and bio-engineering which ensures that no red mud or rock outcrop is exposed; the only greenbelt of roadways taking you smoothly to the destination with no jerks at all.
Yes, we can aim for it as that wish is not too far to achieve. For now, just one black-topped road links Surkhet up to Jumla. Widening this narrow, mostly single-lane road with timely maintenance, will contribute to upgrading the lifestyle of local people. But more than that, it will contribute more to the national economy than to the locals here, since it will link the pristine world of Karnali to the outside world, and create market access and supply chain development.

The natural beauty of lakes in the region, Rara, Phoksundo and Mansarovar does attract a lot of Nepalese tourists to travel here every year. Though, finding a western tourist walking in the streets of cities of Karnali like Jumla, Manma or Gamgadi, is yet a matter of great astonishment in the present context. It is not because Karnali doesn’t have enough touristic destinations, rather its wild and virgin nature is unknown to the world due to infrastructural bottlenecks. It will attract more as it is preserved in its default natural pristine state, which is much desired by tourists and travellers.

Improving the road network without distorting the beauty and the serenity of the hills and preventing the exposed barren cuts and slopes, will give a sense of tranquillity to the tourists. However, simply making a black-topped road in the name of providing basic connectivity is not going to meet this objective. Roads with proper design, gradient, drainage, environment-friendly construction such that it preserves the beauty of the clean, green and healthy nature to its original state, can only give that sense of profound gratification while travelling through the valleys of Karnali, and it will bring forth more and more testimonies for others.
This does not call for rocket science technology, the existing engineers in Nepal can shove infrastructure development valuing and preserving native culture and intelligence. They just need to put sincere and committed effort into designing roads that are fit and appropriate for the terrain and stability, thinking outside-the-box, doing extra research and putting extra efforts to bring in more investments for better and more innovative designs with foremost importance to preserve the environment and its natural beauty while constructing these infrastructures.

Generating the most cost-benefit upside is my dream project, to be going in for cost-effective ropeways rather than costly road networks that require cutting out hills along the difficult Himalayan terrain. Road construction activities not only require huge capital investments but also alters the soil stability and loss of ecological balance. The terrain of Karnali is very challenging for constructing roads, due to strong cliffs and continuous over-pouring of water across unstable hillside slopes.
This is a challenge for both construction and maintenance, which can be escaped if we go for the option of ropeways for such sections. Using a hub and spoke model ropeway networks can connect remote locations to regional or central market hubs in the Terai. Not only for agro-produce, as such apples, to be transported to the market with minimal losses during transport; it will also help to build a sustainable supply chain management, by lowering the end-product prices. Eventually, it will increase the availability of products and generate more profit for the firsthand sellers i.e., native farmers. Again, the direct benefits merely go to the locals, as higher benefits seem favourable to the outer world. Having constructed the ropeways passing through the snowy peaks, the scenery will be no different than that of ropeways in the Alps of Switzerland.
Thus there is an immense opportunity of generating benefits via tourism activities. By constructing ropeways with continuity or at certain sections, and travelling through the snowcapped mountainous remote settings, one can enjoy the immense pleasure of a hawkeyed view of original Nepal in its natural habitat and serene embrace. One day, if we become able to run railways in this terrain, it can give challenge to the Golden Pass Railways of Switzerland.

Benefits of Water Resources
Here comes the idea of cashing out something that comes for free. Karnali region is not only famous for having the longest Karnali river in Nepal but the nature and quality of the water of the tributaries are quite fascinating.
The region lies in the Himalayan zone where heavy rain clouds cannot pass often through the barrier of tall mountains, hence the region is less prone to receive cloud bursts or heavy rainfall-induced events. Secondly, the narrow steep cliffy river valleys are featured with less cultivable lands and less population density. This works as a perfect setting for building impounding reservoirs with high raised dams and focuses on multiple uses of water for hydroelectricity, irrigation and drinking water.

The region is famous for endangered and highly valued medicinal herbs like 'yarsagumba', which can be safely outsourced for medicinal purposes. This straight away soothes the agony of the people here, who have been living in the dark, suffering from low agricultural productivity and poor health & hygiene standards accounting for their low average life span. This will improve hygiene and increase productivity from different sectors including the production of famous 'marsi' rice and livestock, which is their major source of income, and ultimately contribute to economic growth and financial resilience. When we talk about water, the region has the potential to tap pristine mineral water originating from the Himalayan catchments with high-priced medicinal herbs. Having tapped that water, it can be sold out at a value-added price in the international market. In the long run, it will inevitably contribute to excellent national identity and boost the domestic economy.

Divine State
Karnali is such a place of Nepal that can still be found in its original divine state, where people are living closest to nature preserving all their indigenous rituals and cultures and living in perfect harmony with the elements of nature. There are places where you can't buy anything with the money, but rather the barter system will keep you alive. There one can find people with innocent outlook, inner confidence and never-ceasing hopes and aspirations. People living here claim themselves to be living in such a way since the 16th century.

No matter what they say so, if one can have good manners and maintain hygienic practises, I do not see anything wrong with that- I mean living in the good old days of the 16th century. The modern-day world might have accumulated lots of amenities to make life easier, but people have paid a high price for that sophisticated lifestyle. The most precious thing the people of the modern world are ready to bring back unanimously- are the 'good old days as they say, which means the simple old lifestyle where mankind was living closest to nature, in its habitat, living without hurting any other element of nature- in a perfect symbiosis.

The “West” these days is getting inclined to that and we are striving for what they have; like they say “Grass is greener on the other side.” As humankind is an element of nature, it's obvious to seek out its natural habitat. And that place is Karnali, where people can go and relive how the good old days used to be. They do not have to dream or watch YouTube, simply visit Karnali and witness the good old times. It can be developed as a place for developing yoga retreats like India is trying to in “Himachal”.

The food you eat is organic, as no chemical fertiliser is used at all. The taste of regular vegetables, barley, wheat and the brown rice marsi, is like no other on earth. Each household has 5-10 livestock, including horses, and some of them keep communal 500-1000s sheep. Shepherds ride on horses that take them to hilltops located in a range of 3000 to 4000 metres above sea level during the spring season, where cattle are left to graze for 2-3 months and are brought back later. That is the time when one can go to the high hills to eat and drink plenty of milk products for free, literally 'one can take a bath with milk'.

You can find yourself drinking local herbal tea of ‘ghodamoccha’ sitting on the terrace of a wooden mud house and enjoy the vista of green lush of paradise, in contrast to having a cappuccino sitting on a leather couch eyeing a concrete forest. On top of that, once you pay for the food, you are going to get the accommodation for free. Isn't it an interesting deal? Yet, while preserving all these beautiful cultures, one can also understand the reason why the place of origin of so-called 'elite' clans of Khas-Aryans ruling the country for years, got left behind on its own.

Challenges And Opportunities
I would like to make a fusion of all these challenges with their potential opportunities. Presume a traveller with a backpack in a long drive, travels through the valleys of Karnali in a smooth widened black-topped road, ropeway or train, crossing the mountain passes with villages stations with remote traditional houses and people rich in their indigenous tradition and culture, smells the fragrance of aromatic plants on the way, stays a couple of nights in hygienic homestays or roadside inns with good sanitation facilities while travelling along the corridor for a week, stops at certain stations and decides to meditate, do some yoga, and go for trekking along the horse riding trails that pass through remote mountainous village settings, gets familiar with the people and their culture, feels like lost in the proximity of the nature, witnesses the joys and sorrows and ultimately understands the true meaning of one's life, returns with piles of memories, and gets back to the day-job with a rejuvenated soul. This is what it will look like for outsiders, whereas for insiders, they will have access to good transport and electricity networks to supply their agro produce for better market prices, increased access to health and education facilities, increased opportunities for hospitality and booming local tourism industry.

However, this dream 'should' only be achieved with no compromise to the existing culture, ecologically balanced nature and the environment of Karnali. The development vision as aforementioned should be engineered in such a way that the effects of globalisation, migration and cultural mutation will put a minimal impact on the current societal harmony and will create a new symbiosis between nature, human and infrastructural development. Yet, apart from such engineering feasibilities and economic cost-benefit analysis, there is something more crucial governing factor while envisioning such a dream, and that is 'true commitment'.

A commitment towards materialising a dream of common benefit, dedication and passion for persuading others towards achieving the common goal, and a true leadership attitude with an inspiring, team building and never tiring spirit. Here, I would like to extend my best wishes to all the engineers of Nepal, to have such dreams and make them true in this life, and showcase a better world to live in.

(An engineer Neupane is Project Chief at Federal Water Supply and Sewerage Management Project, Jumla)