Mountains provide half the world’s fresh water. They regulate the weather, preserve more plants and animals than any other place and provide the soil needed to farm the plains below. All this is in jeopardy as the globe warms, but preserving the mountains and their people is not even on the agenda at global talks to combat climate change.
To change this, the United Nations’ International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) held the first ever Mountain Day on 4 December on the sidelines of the UN climate summit being held in Durban, South Africa.
ICIMOD director general David Molden said mountains should not only be seen as environments under threat. If properly managed, they could also be “a source of inspiration and innovation to meet the challenges” posed by global warming. “Mountains provide water, food security, energy security, biodiversity and forests. They contain half the global biodiversity hotspots. Clearly, maintaining their health is not a local but a global concern. Today mountains are under threat due to climate change, pollution, black carbon, outmigration leading to much more feminised landscapes. All this leads to more vulnerability.”
Traditionally, people who live in the mountains exist in harmony with nature. Still, these people “get very little payment for ecosystem services,” Molden pointed out. “Conservation efforts rarely reward mountain people.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has pointed out that there are critical knowledge gaps on what is happening to ice, snow and water on mountains due to climate change, what is happening to peoples’ livelihoods, ecosystem services and values as a result.
Molden said that to fill these gaps, scientists had to work across boundaries – both national and institutional. “We need global exchanges on climate issues,” and having mountains officially recognised as endangered by the 192 governments gathered for the climate summit would be a critical step. Echoing this, Vera Scholtz, head of the climate change department in the German development agency GiZ, pointed out that “mountains cover one fifth of the earth’s surface and contain one tenth of the population, but still were half the world’s water supplier.” She felt that local resilience to climate change effects – such as reduced water supply affecting farm output – would be a good starting point for learning to adapt to these effects.
Giving his full support to the initiative to bring mountains onto the global agenda, IPCC chief R.K. Pachauri lamented that in Durban, “hundreds of people are sitting discussing climate change, but are not looking at the larger scientific reality.”
Ministers from mountain countries were present at the occasion. Nepal’s environment minister Hemraj Tater reminded the audience of the need also to preserve the cultural heritage of people who live in mountains. Bhutan’s minister for agriculture and forests Pema Gyamtsho said the reason that mountains were not high on the agenda was “a lack of recognition of upstream downstream linkages. People living downstream have to take equal ownership of the mountains.”
He called for an international group for mountain countries on the same lines as the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which participates in global climate negotiations as a highly effective bloc. For this, he said he wanted countries in the Himalayan region to develop stronger partnership with countries that were in other mountain areas, such as the Andes or the Alps.
Rene Castro Salazar, environment minister of Costa Rica, supported the idea, pointing out that his country was already losing over 1% of its gross domestic product to extreme weather events caused by climate change. Dr Gyamtsho appealed to large mountain countries like China and India to join the consortium. Dr Pachauri suggested that ICIMOD open a dialogue with the United States, which has large mountain areas. He also pointed out that “there should be natural alliance between mountain regions and small island states because melting of snow (due to global warming) is accelerating sea level rise.”
BMS Rathore, joint secretary in India’s ministry of environment and forests, welcomed the initiative and outlined the steps planned in India’s National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem. Experts from ICIMOD, the Alpine Convention and other organisations illustrated how the problems faced by mountains due to climate change were almost identical. In conclusion, ICIMOD deputy director general Madhav Karki said the centre would continue to try and bring mountain countries together into a consortium, and would make Mountain Day an annual event at climate summits.