Extending over eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar covering 3,500 kilometres, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is one of the greatest mountain systems in the world. It has more than 60,000 square kilometers of glaciers and 760,000 square kilometers of snow cover, which is a massive store of freshwater. It supports 240 million people living in this region and is also the source of 10 major Asian rivers including Ganges and Indus, providing essential resources to nearly two billion people
In recent years, the HKH – spanning over Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan - has been going through rapid changes due to climate change and a plethora of disruptions including natural disasters, infrastructure development, migration and land use change.
To evaluate the impacts of these forces on the HKH and address the environmental, economic and social pillars of sustainable mountain development, more than 350 researchers, practitioners, experts and policy makers from the region came together to develop the first comprehensive assessment of the HKH, which was developed over the last five years.
The assessment report consists of 16 chapters, which assess the status quo of knowledge of the region, shed light on the various drivers of change in the region, address data gaps and provide actionable recommendations.
The report presents nine mountain priorities, aligned with the UN SDGs, including ending poverty in the mountains, universal access to clean energy in the mountains and halting biodiversity loss.
This report – the first in a series - has been produced as a part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), which is coordinated by International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
“The HKH is relevant to Bangladesh from water management and river management angles, as we are dependent on upstream countries. We cannot manage our water and disasters alone and trans-boundary cooperation is extremely important for Bangladesh for river water issues,” said Golam Rasul, chief economist at ICIMOD.
“Our dependency on upstream countries is very huge since rainfall water is not enough. So, for any planning of water resources In Bangladesh, we need to know what they are doing upstream. If they don’t conserve water, we will have negative impacts in Bangladesh,” he said.
Another important aspect for Bangladesh is disaster management. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and China account for more than 50 percent of the world’s groundwater withdrawals, and these take place mostly in the plains of river basins that originate in the HKH. The Ganga Brahmaputra Meghna basin is Bangladesh and the country drains huge amounts of water from July to September, making it prone to flooding. So, it needs collaboration regarding early warning, forecasting, planning for disaster mix management, etc.
“The Bangladesh government should take it as a priority to work together with the HKH countries to manage disasters and develop water resources jointly,” Rasul added.
Prior to the report’s launch, ICIMOD held an HKH Science Policy Forum in November 2018 with relevant think tanks, subject matter experts and decision makers. The consultative workshop explored ways to strengthen regional cooperation, including common priority actions.
“As a donor, we recognize that there will be less and less bilateral arrangements and more multilateral, so we need to invest in institutions that will take the work ahead in the long term,” said Mandakini Suri of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), a panelist at the HKH Science Policy Forum.
“My government believes we need cross border collaboration to solve environmental and climate change issues. We have arctic council in Europe to reduce pollution. It’s an integrated part of our mission and helps secure peace and prosperity in the north,” said Solveig Anresen, environment advisor of the Norwegian ministry of environment, and another panelist at the workshop.
“Although the arctic countries are different, they have common goals on fighting climate change and environmental issues, and this is similar to the HKH countries. You need to engage indigenous people and women. We believe regional cooperation for development is the key to success,” she added.
The participants of this International Consultation Workshop also shared experiences and lessons learned in the context of river basin management, cross-border landscape approach, and regional cooperation.
The report finds that the effects of climate change on the HKH are particularly acute, with the number of extreme warm events, intense precipitation having increased and extreme cold events decreasing overall in the last five decades.
Snow-covered areas and snow volumes are also projected to decrease in the HKH due to increased temperatures. Mountain settlements on the HKH are also highly vulnerable to natural disasters as they are located on unstable lopes that are prone to landslide, erosion, or floods, and if these trends continue, the frequency and magnitude of water-induced hazards will increase.
Moreover, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 ̊C, warming will likely be much higher in the HKH, being at least 0.7 ̊C higher in the northwest Himalaya and Karakoram.
However, consensus among climate models for the HKH region is weak – a result of the region’s complex physical features and the coarse resolution of global climate models.
The report recommends stronger regional cooperation for greater sharing of scientific and indigenous knowledge, more reliable projections of temperature increase via better monitoring.
It also suggests that in addition to global emissions reductions to reduce temperature rise, enhancing adaptation to climate change requires transformative adaptation policies, including mainstreaming of adaptation into planning and budgeting processes.
“20 billion USD investment is needed in the HKH for climate action. So, we need to educate businesses and build a business case for adaptation,” said Debra Tan, head of China Water Risk – a Hong Kong based nonprofit dedicated to addressing business and environmental risks arising from water crisis.
“Businesses just want to know how they are exposed so they can protect their assets. We need to map their assets to identify their risk exposure.” she added.
Another factor contributing to exacerbating climate change in the HKH is air pollution. Through the deposition of black carbon and dust, air pollution is speeding up the melting of ice. Mitigating air pollution requires investment in clean technologies and infrastructure according to the report.
Meeting the future energy needs of the HKH is a key focus of the report. While some HKH countries have scaled up off-grid initiatives, it is difficult to replicate those innovate business models for energy solutions in mountain communities.
In this context, the report states that Improving energy efficiency - particularly that of biomass which is widely used in the region - is the most cost-competitive strategy to meet the energy needs of the HKH.
Another option is to explore the full potential of hydropower and other renewables to combat its energy poverty and attain energy security, while also ensuring climate resilient development.
Agriculture is one of the main livelihood options in the HKH, but traditional agricultural systems in the region are under pressure with loss of agrobiodiversity and is failing to meet the food and income needs, which is affecting food security in the region. Mountain people are especially vulnerable to food and nutritional insecurity. When the high mountain areas experience heavy snow fall, people often decrease food consumption. Moreover, during bad weather conditions, road networks are often disrupted which makes food transport difficult. The high cost of transportation translates to high food prices, which often make them unaffordable, thus affecting people’s nutrition. However, the challenges mountain communities face are often not properly understood or reflected in national agricultural policies.
There is a lot that needs to be done to enhance food security of the HKH people, and many ideas were shared by participants of the HKH science policy forum in this regard. Agricultural production needs to be diversified, which will address the issue of farm income and increase food security. Moreover, a way of working needs to be created that transforms river basin approaches – using a multi import area development approach that looks at not only tourism but agro-tourism for instance. Market access also needs to be provided along with building human capability to understand the markets and new production techniques, and necessary land use policy changes made, which creates an enabling environment for ensuring food security.
The people living in the HKH are some of the poorest of the region, and comprise mostly of ethnic minorities, minority populations, and tribal groups. The report finds that in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, poverty incidence is one-third compared to one-fourth for the national average. The factors that predict poverty and its persistence in the HKH broadly are related to remoteness and limited access to markets and basic facilities, high dependence on natural resources, demographic, social and cultural factors and political and socioeconomic marginalization of the population.
“Poverty in the HKH is a very complex issue and the IUCN is quite concerned. One of the lessons learned is the earlier [action is taken] the better and having good metrics for measurement [of impact]. We need to focus on how we can help communities improve their livelihoods,” said Boris Erg of IUCN.
“We will try to look into how by making bankable and workable investment projects we can help link communities and make sectors work together,” he added.
Because there is significant overlap of the determinants of vulnerability and of poverty in the HKH, the report suggests various measures, including allocation of resources for mountain poverty reduction programmes, with targeted approaches for indigenous and marginalized communities, social protection for climate threats, addressing multidimensional poverty and sharing of data among HKH countries.
The report presents two possible pathways that can lead the HKH to a prosperous scenario by 2080.
The first such pathway involves large-scale sustainable development investments with regional cooperation, with a focus on developing HKH’s natural resources, infrastructure and human resources. This requires national and international funding through collaboration among state, corporate, and non-state actors. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and Indus Water Treaty are some examples relevant to this model.
The second pathway to prosperity combines investments with cooperation across multiple levels. This involves developing water and energy through smaller-scale and decentralized programs that promote self-reliance, and coordination among many non-state development and social actors. Farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal and local spring water management projects in India are examples of this approach.
Effective environmental governance – the way formal and informal institutions act to manage the environment - is the key to address these multifaceted challenges in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, according to the report.
This involves equitable sharing of the environmental resources – forests, water, biodiversity, agriculture – as well as the costs, and risks.
While there are few existing regional policies and processes for environmental governance in the region; most are national and subnational. Environmental governance reforms require decentralization supported through subnational and national governance systems to scale up successful initiatives and empower community action, as well as transboundary cooperation.
“Whether it is realistic in South Asia to think of a river basin wide agreement or treaty or will that always be elusive, is a key question, and we cannot put all our eggs in the same basket thinking there will be a big breakthrough with a broad region wide agreement in the future” said Shantanu Mitra of DFID, who was a panelist at the HKH Science Policy Forum.
In spite of the political and cultural differences of the eight HKH countries, the common challenges unite them all and puts the impetus on them to cooperate to address the risks.
“There are rocky times ahead for the region: between now and 2080, the environmental, economic and social conditions laid out in the report could go downhill. Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflicts among the region’s countries could easily flare up,” said Eklabya Sharma, deputy DG of ICIMOD.
“But the future doesn’t have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash.”