February 26 – 27, 2013
Say what? A sign at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu proudly proclaimed Nepal as second to Brazil in water resources. I did a double take, unable to wrap my head around the idea of this tiny landlocked country nipping at the heels of the world’s fifth largest. Brazil was drained by the Amazon and bordered by the Atlantic. I could not even name one river or lake in Nepal, known for its mountains, not bodies of water.
As if taking my case, clouds of dust whipped up by cars and buses enveloped our ride from airport to hotel. Kathmandu, mostly unpaved and built with bricks, was dry and brown. It would be days later on a Buddha Air flight to Pokhara over mountains of snow when I wondered: Could Nepal’s primary natural resource mostly be frozen?
A giant white Toblerone lorded it over Pokhara: the Machapuchare (Fish Tail). The name was derived from the mountain’s bifurcated summit, the shape akin to that part of a fish. The fish imagery seemed unlikely for an inland mountain range at first, but it fit when one saw the Himalayas, “abode of snow,” as an immense reservoir of frozen water.
We had no sooner landed than we asked our guide to take us to the best view of the mountain. Alas, afternoon clouds had already hidden the Fish Tail tantalizingly out of sight, save for its pointy top (mornings were a safer bet for cloudless views). With only its southern peak visible from the city, it had been unfairly dubbed as the Matterhorn of Nepal.
Thriving at the shadow of snowy Annapurna Himal, Pokhara was cradled by a lush tropical valley carved and fed by melted snow cascading down the Himalayan slopes. The city enjoyed balmier climate than Kathmandu owing to its lower altitude, conducive to cool-weather flowering plants and popular to fair-weather visitors.
The panorama of Pokhara Valley spread out like a larger-than-life water cycle poster: the perpetual white of Himalayan mountains looming over the crystal blue of Phewa Lake and the green and auburn of Raniban Forest. No more than 30 kilometers separated two climactic extremes of frigidity and humidity, such environmental diversity captured by banana trees and snow-capped peaks sharing the same line of vision.
The glacial pace at which the descending snow moved eventually became violent torrents of frigid water, its volume dictated by the season. During our visit, rivers had become rivulets, much of the river bed drying out in the sun; still, evidence of the elemental force of water remained etched onto the landscape: wide gullies, deep gorges, and winding sinkholes. Cold season was dry season, though; the country’s main natural resource was still frozen up north or had not swept in as monsoon rains from down south. I could imagine these gorges engorged and the rivers bursting at the seams during the rainy months.
Our guide let us dip our fingers into the whitewater current of Seti River issuing from an aqueduct. It felt like it had come directly from the fridge. Local women washing their laundry upstream obviously did not mind the cold as much. They did, however, make the most out of what looked like a brook, only because it had been dwarfed by the depth and width of the gully that contained it.
Many rivers in Pokhara disappeared into the ground, only to reemerge hundreds of meters downstream. They could be precarious to out-of-towners unaccustomed to the pockmarked landscape here. A popular cautionary tale involved a person named Devi, who I initially thought to be Indian (no, but a foreigner nonetheless). It was said that Devi fell into a ravine and got sucked into an underground gorge, never to be seen again, thereby lending his/her name to the place. Various accounts were not even consistent with the victim’s gender, let alone nationality. In any case, the waterfall had been called Devi’s Fall since.
There was not much to see, but much of it told of the cycles of the land. We found the waterfalls to be disproportionately small for the deep gashes and abysmal holes on solid ground, handiwork of the seasonal surge of water strong enough to tunnel through rock. It was probably not February when Devi took that fateful plunge.
I learned a local saying, Nepal pani ko khani ho, translated by my Nepali friend, Bhuwan, as “Nepal is a mine (a great source) of water.” Water not only fed the land, it was the fruit of the land, precious as any gemstone. Within its borders lay the Himalayas, believed to be the heavenly source of life that sustained the earth. In fact, water covered seven percent of the country’s area, not counting snow that blanketed the mountains, and river currents here were among the fastest in the world – faster than you could say hydroelectric power. Still, the country’s energy needs were largely unmet.
Arjan, our guide, explained that hydroelectricity mainly powered Nepal, yet this potential remained insufficiently tapped. Government officials were more concerned about building their homes and their children’s future through foreign education than building the country’s infrastructure. That explained the hours-long (in my experience in Kathmandu, at least 5 hours) daily blackouts, called load shedding, plaguing Nepal, a country that was supposed to run on power generated from its greatest natural resource, which sadly had been frozen, not only by climate, but by corruption.