The push to share research in the Himalayas

The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is planning to become a coordinator of regional research in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, its director general Andreas Schild told chinadialogue in an interview at the UN biodiversity summit in Nagoya.

The organisation, which has grown in consonance with the ecological problems of its member countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar – now hopes to act as a platform to ensure research quality and common methodologies.

ICIMOD is already playing this role in a project to study the Himalayas’ Kailash region, the location of the headwaters of the Indus River and Brahmaputra (Tsang Po) and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus alike. Organisations in China, Nepal and India will research the region, and their findings then brought together to create “ecosystems management with a regional approach”, as Schild put it.

The need for more research in the Hindu Kush Himalayas can hardly be overstated. It is known the mountain range is being badly affected by deforestation, habitat loss and global warming, and its ability to act as Asia’s water tower over the long term is increasingly in doubt. But there are serious data gaps whenever scientists and policymakers look at the ecology of the world’s highest mountain range.

“We are looking systematically at these data gaps and trying to fill them,” Schild said. “We have already done this in the Indus basin. The data gaps have been identified by researchers, government institutions and NGOs so that we can carry out coordinated long-term monitoring of the Upper Indus Basin.”

Coordination will definitely be a challenge – 7% of the basin is in China, another 7% in Afghanistan, one-third in India and the rest in Pakistan. The rivers in the basin flow through some of the most fiercely contested regions in the world today.

At the same time, policymakers realise that the studies are essential if the ecosystem is to be restored to a point where it does not become one of the reasons for poverty and violence. The 2010 flood here, Pakistan’s worst in living memory, has underscored the need to restore this highly degraded ecosystem where, in much of the area, timber poachers rule the roost.

ICIMOD is also starting coordinated research between China, Nepal and India in the Kosi river basin, further east, a highly unstable basin notorious for landslides and floods. And the organisation is looking at a project in the Salween-Brahmaputra basin, which will coordinate research between China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Schild expects data gaps in this vital part of the world to be filled within a few years, as research organisations in ICIMOD member countries – especially China and India – build up research capacity.

“Then we’ll accelerate our regional plans to manage these ecosystems in a sustainable way,” he said. “I know it will be difficult to come up with these plans in the field of climate-change adaptation, because that involves water and river basins, which are politically sensitive areas. But we can start with preserving biodiversity, where countries are already willing to cooperate.

“Even in the field of water cooperation, we can start with the low-hanging fruits, such as research on the extent to which glaciers are receding or regional information centres to warn about flash floods.”