By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
The future of mountains and mountain people got a much-needed boost at June’s U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro.
The Rio+20 declaration, “Our Common Vision”, adopted by heads of state and top-level government representatives from around the world, recognises the global benefits of mountain ecosystems and the vital contributions of mountain people to sustainable development.
It calls for global support for sustainable mountain development, and encourages governments to adopt specific policies for efficient use of natural resources in mountain regions, while ensuring the future wellbeing of mountain people.
The declaration document includes three paragraphs on mountains. These acknowledge the benefits provided by mountain regions as critical for sustainable development.
The vulnerability of mountain ecosystems is also highlighted, due to the adverse effects of climate change, deforestation and forest degradation, changes in land use, land degradation, natural disasters and the impacts of melting glaciers on the environment and human wellbeing.
The Rio+20 text urges U.N. member states to “integrate mountain-centric policies into national sustainable development strategies, which could include, among others, poverty alleviation plans and alternative livelihood programmes in mountain areas in developing countries”.
David Molden, director-general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, said his organisation had played a role in advancing these messages through the long preparatory process, which continued right up to the start of the summit on June 20.
ICIMOD also hosted an event in Rio that underlined the need to better manage mountains’ natural resources as global public goods supplying water, food and clean energy for people’s basic needs and livelihoods.
“This is really a feel-good step in global policy development processes that the call was echoed at Rio+20 for world support for sustainable mountain development,” Molden said.
“Undoubtedly, climate change and globalisation have disproportionately impacted mountain countries. However, supporting the mountains to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of these changes will have global benefits,” he added.
UNCERTAIN WATER SUPPLIES
In mountain countries, glaciers, ice fields and snow packs hold and release an immense amount of water that meet year-round needs for irrigation, drinking, sanitation, industry and clean energy. Water stored by these mountains is critical for food security too, both in the mountain areas and downstream.
Mountains are also sources of rich biodiversity that provide organic food and forest products and natural medicines. Yet these products and services are at risk from diverse climate change impacts.
The discharge of water from the cryosphere (the Earth’s frozen regions) is essential for food security. But uncertainty about future water supplies renders mountain and agricultural communities vulnerable, particularly in sub-tropical zones.
A lack of solid scientific data on how the climate is changing in most developing mountain countries, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and India, and the impacts on snow and ice is a hurdle to the design of internally coordinated strategies.
These countries need financial and technological support to gather information, which will help strengthen their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Pakistan, for example, has installed several weather monitoring stations to study the melting patterns of glaciers in the north, but would like to expand the network to deliver more accurate and timely information on glacier changes. That would help it avoid infrastructure damage and loss of life downstream from flooding.
According to the meteorological department, Pakistan has more than 4,000 glaciers of varying sizes, but at a cost of more than $20,000 each, the government cannot afford to install anywhere close to the number of monitoring stations needed to watch them properly.
Climate change and anthropogenic pollution have become drivers of negative consequences, particularly for glaciers, which are of global significance.
Increased climate variability - including erratic and more intense rains, droughts and cyclones - is bringing additional hazards for mountain populations.
Climate change adaptation strategies are of high importance for mountain areas. But some mountainous countries lack the capacity needed to collect information relating to their urgent adaptation needs and to prepare adaptation plans.
Poor countries that depend on mountain ecosystem services require free and regular access to data on how climate change is affecting mountain resources, and assistance with how to mitigate those impacts and adapt to them.
There are now several hundred million dollars in financial instruments and aid funding available to support the development of measures to adapt to climate change in least-developed countries - and billions more promised.
But this money is not going to mountain communities and their ecosystems on the scale required by the urgency of the problem.
Global mountain ecosystems and livelihoods will only be safeguarded now and in the future if governments actually follow through on the pledges and commitments made at global forums like Rio+20 and the U.N. climate talks.