Megh Ale

Ashoka Fellow
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Nepal
Fellow Since 2007
This description of Megh Ale's work was prepared when Megh Ale was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .

Introduction

Transforming the way people understand the value and economic potential of Nepal’s rivers, Megh Ale is saving the rivers of Nepal through ecotourism, conservation, and cleanup through his organization, the Nepal River Conservation Trust. Megh is creating new opportunities for people in Nepal and all over the world to experience and benefit from Nepal’s rivers and waterways.

The New Idea

Megh is changing the way river communities, politicians, and greater Nepalese society understands and provides for the conservation of Nepal’s awe-inspiring river heritage. Through the Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT), Megh and other like-minded river guides are creating a new standard for eco-tourism in Nepal that protects and advocates for Nepal’s river ecosystems, while also transforming the way society values Nepal’s rivers. 
Founded by Megh in 1995, the NRCT takes a multi-pronged approach to educate and empower river communities and larger society. Working with river communities, Megh instills knowledge and a passion for river conservation that is fuelling the success of a growing ecotourism and “teahouse rafting” industry in Nepal, but also changing the way the larger public experiences and cares for important rivers like the Karnali, Bagmati, Bishnumuti, and the Seti, that flow through Kathmandu and Pokhara. Through cleanup campaigns, lobbying, and popular River Festivals, Megh is restoring Nepal’s rivers to their rightfully treasured status in the country. The NRCT became a member of the Sustainable Tourism Network (STN) in 2001. STN is a forum of organizations affiliated with the Nepal Tourism Board and networks with many tourism organizations and stakeholders. In 2005 Megh founded Namaste Nepal with the Freiberg School in Germany, to set up School Partnerships with rural and needy schools in Nepal with the vision of “Sustainable Education for Better Living.” He hopes to carry the School Partnership mission to many river community schools to better understand River Conservation and to save the pristine Himalayan Rivers.

The Problem

Six thousand rivers and tributaries flow through the majestic Himalayas to the lowlands of the Terai in Nepal. These rivers and tributaries enrich Nepal’s river basins and valleys, providing fertile land for 85 percent of the Nepali people that depend on agriculture for subsistence. In addition, millions more in Nepal, India, and the surrounding countries also depend on the rivers for drinking water. Thousands of plant and animal species are supported by Nepal’s waterways and play important roles in maintaining the health of the rivers and the environment. These rivers are not only vital for agriculture, drinking water, and the environment, but they hold a special place in the religious and cultural heritage of Nepal. Rivers like the Bagmati are celebrated in music, poetry, and literature, and are often referred to as the “Ganges of Nepal.” Despite their importance, Nepal’s rivers face grave threats from both damming and pollution.

Damming has the power to provide clean energy for the people of Nepal, but it can also destroy ecosystems, displace people, and limit the economic productivity of a river without providing any energy to the people living on its banks. Currently, almost all of the rivers in Nepal face damming prospects by either multinational corporations or government in the next ten to twenty years. Too often these dams provide power to urban populations at the expense of displaced rural ones. Rural people face bleak prospects as internally-displaced refugees with few opportunities to regain the ways of life they once enjoyed. Dams also increase environmental and social instability as earthquakes can quickly turn dammed water into severe flash floods for the region. While well-placed dams are crucial to meeting Nepal’s modern energy needs, indiscriminate damming based upon factors of cost and capacity is ruining whole ecosystems at the expense of Nepal’s people.

In addition to damming, Nepal’s rivers and waterways face threat from major pollution. Densely populated slum settlements are pressing closer to the river banks of the Bagmati and the Bishnumuti in Kathmandu, and the Seti in Pokhara, turning the rivers into wastelands filled with sewage and trash. Even people outside the slums, with other options for waste disposal, use the rivers as a dumping ground for trash and waste. Government legislation exists to protect these rivers, but with no mechanisms for monitoring, clean up, or assistance for river-bank communities, this legislation has done little to stop the pollution.

The Strategy

Transforming the way people understand the value and economic potential of Nepal’s rivers, Megh Ale is building a new set of priorities for Nepal’s people and government that include for ecotourism, conservation, cleanup, and responsible damming. Through NRCT, Megh is creating opportunities for people in Nepal to experience and benefit from Nepal’s rivers and waterways.

With a great deal of the NRCT and STN’s work focused on Nepal’s growing ecotourism industry, Megh believes the communities making their lives on the banks of Nepal’s rivers have not only the most to contribute but also the most to gain from river preservation and cleanup. Working with communities to create ecotourism activities like hiking, rafting, and kayaking, Megh is fostering the development of a “teahouse rafting” industry in Nepal. Just as Nepal’s mountains have become popular international destinations for trekkers and hikers, large rivers like the Karnali have the potential to become key destinations for eco and adventure tourism if they remain undammed. Turning the Karnali into a “Himalayan River Heritage” site could also allow the government to earn revenue from permits for rafting and trekking while Megh estimates that just one tourist on Nepal’s rivers can employ approximately eleven local people. This employment and fee potential translates into higher incomes for rural people and a greater local and national respect for ecotourism activities as alternatives to dams.

To strengthen river conservation in the growing rafting and ecotourism industry, Megh has developed a training program for all river guides from which they are able to graduate as “ambassadors of river conservation.” These river guides follow Megh’s uniquely designed “code of conduct.” Guides use this code to monitor their interactions and tourists’ interactions with river communities to ensure that all parties are treated fairly and that the tourists understand the importance of keeping Nepal’s rivers clean and free-flowing. Thus far, 350 river guides have graduated from Megh’s program with many more coming through every year.

While the river guides who graduate from Megh’s program are key players in the conversation of Nepal’s rivers, Megh also targets the children of rural and urban river communities to provide for the future generation. Working with thirty-two key schools on river banks and in river valleys, Megh teaches community forest development and helps students develop appropriate sanitation and hygiene programs for their communities to prevent further pollution. Megh has been providing scholarships for passionate students and community members to participate in more in-depth river conservation, cleanliness, and tree plantation initiatives.

In addition to building the ecotourism industry in Nepal, Megh and the NRCT are creating awareness and building a societal passion for Nepal’s rivers through various festivals and outreach campaigns. Since 1997, the NRCT has held annual river festivals in different parts of Nepal. The Bagmati River Festival in Kathmandu has been a popular national celebration since 2001. The festival promotes the Bagmati as a venue for fun and celebration with boat races by celebrities, students, business people, and government officials alike. Musical concerts, eco-challenges, rafting trips and clean-up campaigns are all incorporated into the media and corporate event. This Festival also brings together many of the NRCT’s thirty-seven partner organizations and 1,050 volunteers for an event that is successfully changing the way Nepalese society thinks about and cares for its rivers and waterways.

Megh and the NRCT’s outreach campaigns include not just the popular River Festivals, but also extensive lobbying of the government for river clean-up, and an effort to include the Karnali and the Seti rivers on the World Heritage Site list. Supported by environmental impact studies conducted by the NRCT, Megh lobbies for more strategic damming efforts to allows rivers like the Bagmati, Karnali, and Seti, to continue flowing freely while damming others where there is smaller environmental and economic impact.

With continued success, Megh and the NRCT aim to benefit all the river communities with clean naturally flowing rivers. Megh is looking forward to spreading his ideas abroad and collaborating with international organizations to launch an International River Festival by 2011. Locally, he will continue training new river guides from the river communities. He also wishes to increase feasibility studies in different districts to improve river tourism and increase support for conservation. Coupled with his tireless passion for Nepal’s rivers, Megh’s continuous efforts will bring new and substantial river tourism to Nepal.

At present, Megh is lobbing for sensible tourism practices in Nepal, and believes others cannot compete with what Nepal has to offer: 1) Adventure and adventure sports tourism in the Himalayas 2) Ecotourism practices from Lowland of Jungle and villages to the Highland of Nepal 3) Pilgrimage and culture tourism. Nepal is sacred for Buddhists and Hindus and rich in ancient culture and heritage sites, this has to be promoted as well as the tourism product 4) Sustainable village tourism to be developed, there is no sustainability of tourism until or unless the tourism dollars or Rupees reach to the rural villages 5) Responsible tourism. All above have to practice responsible tourism, no matter what they do.

The Person

Born in Waling, Syangja, Nepal, Megh’s work is driven by a life-long love of Nepal’s rivers. Unhappy with his first school experiences, he recalls running to the river for solace, fishing, swimming, and playing in the water. He spent as much time as possible in the rivers near his village and is remembered by many of his fellow villagers, especially the elderly women, for helping them cross the river. From a young age he gained admiration from his village for saving people from drowning in the rivers’ strong currents.

Megh later found his calling as a river guide for Tiger Mountain outdoor company doing Himalayan River Expeditions. He was so successful that he soon became an operation manager for a Norwegian Rafting company in 1991. With increasing success, Megh began looking towards the future. While on a trip to U.K., he participated in an outdoor adventure program that left him awe-inspired. Convinced that there could be similar experience for tourists in Nepal, Megh came up with an innovative river-based outdoor activities program and proposed it to the Tiger Mountain Company. After the company declined his proposal, Megh started his own organization, Ultimate Descents, in 1991. With his experience and skill he managed to work as a River Guide and instructor in Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.S. during Nepal’s off season in the summer.

While business was going well, Megh became increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect for Nepal’s rivers and the potential of ecotourism. After involvement in several river conservation initiatives, Megh established the Nepal River Conservation Trust in 1995 and became a core member of the STN in 2005.