Legend has it that the Karnali River—which runs a thousand kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau in China to the Ganges River in India—has its headwaters in the Rakshas Tal, Sanskrit for “the Lake of the Demon.” People who live along the Nepal stretch of the Karnali say that’s why it brings them so much sorrow. They speak of floods, water shortages, and pollution coming from upstream in China. They fret over the proposed mega-dam that is set to disrupt Nepal’s last free-flowing major river.
But as Nepali journalist Ramesh Bhushal sees it, if you want to fully understand the Karnali and its impact on surrounding communities, you must be willing to cross a few borders. The story of the Karnali is an international one, shaped by the political, economic, and cultural forces of the three countries it traverses: China, Nepal, and India. It was in this context that Bhushal and photographer Nabin Baral decided in 2018 to join a team of scientists on a 45-day hiking and rafting expedition from the river’s origins in Tibet, along its path through the Himalayas, to its confluence with the Ganges River. Along the way, Bhushal looked for emergent signs of climate change, talked to local residents about how they live with the river, and at times walked a delicate tightrope of journalistic ethics. (He and his companions also discovered that the Karnali River doesn’t actually originate from Rakshas Tal.)
Following the trip, Bhushal, the South Asia content coordinator for Earth Journalism Network and Nepal editor for The Third Pole, produced a five-part series for The Nepali Times and The Third Pole on the myriad of challenges facing the people who live on the banks of the Karnali. He recently spoke with Abhaya Raj Joshi about finding sources, pitching to global media outlets, and dealing with moral dilemmas while reporting from one of the most remote regions of the Global South. (The interview has been translated from Nepali. Read the Nepali version here.)
Could you tell me about how the idea of the trip came about?
I had previously worked on stories about the Kosi and the Gandaki—two major rivers of Nepal—but most of the travel I did was within the country. I was looking for an opportunity to write a transboundary story on the rivers. It was then that Megh Ale from the Nepal River Conservation Trust approached me with an idea. His team was conducting a rapid assessment of the river, from Tibet in China to the Gangetic Plains in north India. His team included hydrologists, geologists, and other scientists. He also wanted a journalist to come along so that the 45-day journey could be documented and multiple perspectives could be developed.
So your trip was sponsored by the River Conservation Trust? Did you take steps to protect your journalistic independence?
From the word go, I told them that I will write about the river, but it won’t be just about the work you do. I also told them that while I will make use of their resources, the reports I prepare will be based on my ideas only, using the expertise of your team members and the people we meet during the trip. They agreed to it, but under the condition that I provide them the necessary information and photos and video from the trip whenever they needed them.
Did you have some idea about the type of story you wanted to do?
I had made up my mind that I would do a series of stories on the river as it passes varied landscapes and people of various cultures. I had a couple of issues in mind: the inequality in development between Nepal and Tibet as China grows at a rapid pace, the lack of transparency in China, and the biggest-ever hydropower plant planned on the Nepali side of the frontier. From my previous travels to India, I knew that floods in the river and its effects on the people would also be something I’d like to cover. Climate change would also have to be reported.
The first leg of the trip was in China. Was it difficult to get a journalist visa?
We had to travel to China as pilgrims, not as journalists. But that was not the problem. The problem was that the community there spoke a language we did not understand. We imagined that they wouldn’t talk to us even if [we] knew the language. We saw the landscape and what was going on there, but we could not get any quotes from the Chinese side.
Did things get easier after you crossed into Nepal? How did you find people to interview?
We went there on an itinerary designed by [the River Conservation Trust], so we had to follow their plans. They had set goals for every day that we must reach a certain place at the end of the day. But [photographer Nabin Baral and I] devised a strategy to work with what we had. The first thing we did was to talk to whomever we met on the road. If we’d see someone working on the field, we’d approach the person and start talking right away.
It was interesting to see that the road presents to you a mix of people within a short period of time. Everyone comes to the road for different reasons.
What about women, who don’t come out of their homes that often? Their voices would be left out.
Yes, I agree that is a challenge when incorporating diverse voices in a story. But we tried to get as many women as possible to talk to us. The other downside of the approach was that there were so many places we [learned about] during our conversations that we wanted to visit. There was a village where a climate change–malnutrition story could’ve been done. There was another where scarcity of water could be talked about. But we didn’t have enough time to reach out to them.
How did the local people perceive you when you told them you were a journalist?
Most people understood I was a journalist after seeing our camera. They thought we were TV reporters and asked which station the video would be aired on. They were baffled that someone was actually walking from Tibet to India. When we asked permission to take photos, some of them would ask for money. Because so many NGOs work in the region, there were people who wanted money for everything. They thought we were shooting video to sell it somewhere to earn money from their plight.
Did you experience moments where you felt like you had to choose between being a journalist and a human being?
Yes, I did. There was one woman who asked us for our trekking stick. “You’ve taken so many photos of us. Why don’t you give us the stick for my husband, as he is quite old?” she said. I gave my trekking stick to him.
After a long day of walking, we’d sit down for lunch or dinner and small children and local people would gather around us looking at our food. We were carrying our limited supply of food on mule backs and we barely had enough for the team. It was a difficult experience. One day I met a young boy who was heading uphill. He was wearing a rag as his trousers, I gave him around 150 rupees ($1.50) to buy candies for himself. But he said he wanted to buy copybooks for school and ran away. I felt guilty that I gave him only 150 rupees. I could have given him more and he could have bought more books, but it’s almost impossible to do it as those situations came up almost every day.
What did you learn about how climate change is affecting the region?
Climate change stories are already a bit difficult to do. The difficulty increases in remote areas where not a lot of quality research has been carried out. All we have are anecdotes from local people. While some said the effect of climate change on the rainfall was positive, others said it was negative. Science most often lags behind people’s experience.
Did you learn anything new about the Karnali itself?
During the trip, we debunked a myth about the origins of the river. It was said that the river originates from the Rakshas Tal (Demon Lake), and that is why it brings sorrow to the people. But we found out that it actually originates somewhere else.
You’ve said you had difficulty pitching your series to global media outlets. Why do you think that was the case?
I think getting global media outlets to publish stories produced by local reporters in the Global South is always a problem. If a foreign correspondent had gone on the journey, he would have the same photos and videos and would have written the story along similar lines, and that would have been published. Global media outlets often times want stories from their own perspectives.
The Nepali Times and The Third Pole did a wonderful job with the story, which was also republished on Firstpost, a website based in India. I also wrote a story in Nepali and published it in Nepal’s most-read Nepali newspaper, Kantipur. I am glad that the story was published on national and regional media.
The series is titled “Faith to Reality.” How did you come up with that name?
I was looking for a name for the series, and I was stuck. I was reading a book on the Ganges when something struck a chord. The book, which talked about the Ganges in terms of faith and reality, is a compilation of papers by different researchers. The Ganges is a holy river, people worship it, but the reality is far removed from that notion, one of the authors was saying. That’s when I decided to name the series “Faith to Reality,” as the Karnali was also facing a similar situation.
How did people respond to the series?
The response was overwhelming. Several book publishers approached me to write a book on the Karnali. We also organized a photo exhibition on the Karnali. So I would say it was a great experience.
What’s your tip for reporters who want to go on similar journeys?
My tip would be to do thorough research before going on the trip. I would [also] advise them to be selective about the information they gather. Our approach was to gather as much information as possible, so that we could process it back home. But that does not work so well; it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But as reporters, we should also be flexible enough to twist our angle if field reporting shows something else than what we had in our mind before leaving for the trip.
What would you do differently if you got to do the trip again?
During the writing stage, I found that most people I talked to spoke about the same thing. I had a lot of information but it was redundant. So maybe I would try to talk about a bit more things to a bit more people the next time. And I would reverse my trip route and start from the south instead of the north.
Why would you like to do it in reverse?
Well, it would help look at the region, its landscape, and its people from a different perspective. When we began from the north, we started from a remote place inhabited by a handful of people and ended at a place with more than a billion people. That gave us a certain perspective. I imagine the perspective would be different if we started from a place with more than a billion people and ended at a sparsely populated area.
Abhaya Raj Joshi is a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He writes on environment, wildlife, and climate change issues. Follow him on Twitter @arj272.