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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
There are nearly 31,400 miles (51,500 km) of rivers running between peaks and across the sprawling plains of Nepal. The many rivers provide the communities with water for drinking and irrigation, fishing as a source of food and livelihood, cultural value and religious connection, and recreational tourism for world-renowned rafting and kayaking.
However, proposed hydropower dam developments, intended to meet the country’s energy development goals, threaten the health and quality of the rivers. Hydropower dams are massive, immobile structures that are expensive to build and disrupt the environment by blocking water and sediment flow, impacting species, ecosystems, and the values that natural rivers provide. These challenges are amplified by the climate crisis, which has the potential to leave communities without water and power.
Nepal has historically dammed rivers for hydropower energy, but current research elsewhere has shown that energy alternatives, such as wind and solar, can achieve the same level of energy generation while avoiding the negative impacts of hydropower. WWF sought to evaluate how Nepal could transition to renewable, low-carbon energy options while protecting rivers and their benefits to nature and people.
The Paani Program was a five-year effort (2016-2020) funded by the US Agency for International Development, to enhance Nepal’s ability to manage water resources through a science-based decision-making process. As one of the many projects funded by Paani, WWF and partners performed a three-component study to assess and model Nepal’s energy options. The study included:
By making informed decisions about hydropower and energy development from the systems scale, there is a greater possibility of finding solutions that meet energy needs without the loss of other values that rivers provide.
The outputs of the Paani Program can help the Government of Nepal identify a suite of projects that have lower impact on rivers for the same energy output. This will benefit both the people and nature of Nepal, as the country can spend less on infrastructure and avoid negative environmental and social impacts with renewable energy alternatives.
System-scale planning for energy development and river protection can be repeated across the globe. With only 1/3 of the world’s longest free-flowing rivers left and the increasing threat of fossil fuel-driven climate change, governments need to assess the opportunities for renewable energy with an integrated approach to protect the existing natural resources.