Mountains bring us together

KATHMANDU: Mountains are generally considered barriers that isolate and divide. Their formidable physicality presents challenges for development and the delivery of goods and services. Some mountain ranges mark international borders.

However, if we zoom out we also begin to see a certain unity — in the physical geography, in the everyday struggles of mountain communities across borders, and in common challenges in an era of environmental change.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is shared by eight countries —Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. It is home to around 240 million people and is the origin of 10 major rivers including the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow (Huang He).

Imagine a blue network of arteries and veins, if you will, coursing through the region and nourishing the lives of 1.9 billion people in these river basins. Water ties us together and mountains unite us.

The rapid pace of change is visible across the whole HKH, with repercussions for mountain people and beyond. External migration, rapid urbanisation, pollution and environmental degradation are changing the face of the HKH.

The impacts of climate change will become even more prevalent with rising temperatures. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere across the Himalaya, affecting water flows.

Climate change models indicate more rainfall, but also an increase in extreme weather events. Clearly, there is a need to be much better prepared than we are now, to adapt to a host of changes. The impacts may differ but we are bound by these common challenges.

Cultural and linguistic diversity is also a function of isolation in the mountains. Diverse communities with unique cultures, practices, and traditional knowledge inhabit the HKH.

Over the years, this culturally rich landscape and its people have provided inspiration and unique ideas. Many of these perspectives are important for the world as we face future challenges such as climate change.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is an idea that has been widely accepted across the world, pointing to a consensus about conservation of nature and culture in the pursuit of economic growth.

One crucial way to deal with change is to make sure that we have the best knowledge and science to help us prepare. The Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring Assessment Programme (HIMAP) is one such programme developed for this task.

A growing group of scientists and practitioners, now more than 350 people from the eight HKH countries and beyond, have contributed to the HIMAP process.

HIMAP has engaged with policy makers from the start to ensure that the programme addresses relevant questions such as how do communities adapt, how to meet the energy needs of mountain people, and what will happen with climate change.

HIMAP will not stop at collating knowledge, but will be used as a means to engage different groups — governments, communities, civil society and the private sector — to develop solutions.

HIMAP findings suggest that we must invest more into helping mountain communities adapt to climate change.

It is important that development efforts in the Himalaya region pay attention to socio-cultural and ecological issues. The uniqueness of these mountains needs to be realised, and their perspectives need to be embedded in national policies and programmes.

In order to do so, mountain leaders need to be involved in political debates and communities must come forward to express their concerns.

HIMAP highlights the need for cooperation at all levels — between people, communities and nations.

The Arctic Council and Alpine Convention serve as models for the HKH. Both have set up effective regional collaboration mechanisms for governments to have discussions around science and environment, especially on shared and vulnerable ecosystems.

Perhaps a similar body, something like an HKH Council, is appropriate for the region. Cooperation across boundaries is crucial for the HKH, and by extension for Asia and the world.

The author is Director General at ICIMOD Nepal