Mountains provide numerous goods and services — fresh water, biodiversity, food, forest, medicinal products, and energy — for all of us. These services are becoming increasingly valuable to society, yet all are under threat as mountains and mountain people are undergoing rapid change due to globalization and climate change.
Mountains are the Earth's natural freshwater reservoirs. They store an immense amount of water and gradually release it to support lives and livelihoods downstream. More than half of humanity relies on freshwater from mountains to grow food, produce electricity, sustain biological diversity and provide drinking water. Glaciers, ice fields, and snow packs provide important water storage facilities. The Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) Mountains are referred to as the "water towers" of Asia and are vital to the 1.3 billion people living in downstream in 10 major river basins. They are the major source of water in the dry season, both surface and groundwater, and as such are critical for hydropower and food security.
The HKH mountain systems play a significant role in agriculture and food security in the region in many ways. Mountains play a critical role in maintaining agricultural biodiversity, and a regulating role for micro climate, precipitation, and the monsoon precipitation. Many of the rivers originating in the HKHs are major breadbasket areas of regional and global significance such as the Indus, the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow river. The rivers originating in Nepal contribute to groundwater storage and almost three-quarters of the surface water discharge in the Ganges River during the dry season, flowing through the fertile plains of its basin in India. More than one-third of arable land in the HKH countries (excluding Bhutan and Myanmar) is irrigated, mainly by water from rivers originating in these mountains. Pakistan has the highest proportion of irrigated land (82%) and the most extensive irrigation system in the world. Food security at country, regional and global scales is under question if there are changes to this vital source of water.
Mountains play a vital role in energy security. The hydropower potential in the HKH region conservatively exceeds 500GW. If properly harnessed, hydropower could play a crucial role in transforming the lives of people living in the HKH countries. Wisely implemented, clean energy based on Himalayan water can contribute to reduce a source of global warming and enhance agriculture, food security, economic prosperity and human wellbeing.
Mountains are fragile environments and vulnerable to climate change, and increased pressures stem from globalization and economic growth such as air pollution, black carbon, and outmigration. These developments result in increased poverty, vulnerability, food insecurity. The speed of change unravels the social fabric of societies and has already begun to increase the incidence of conflicts.
In mountain environments such as the HKH Region, the prevalence of poverty is high. In spite of being abundant in water, people in the region have difficulties with access to water and energy, and hence water and energy development are important. This is a much bigger problem than inefficient use or over-use of water prevalent in many parts of the world. While over use and inefficiency deserve attention, the solutions for lack of access differ greatly and require different actions. The green economy calls for resource efficient, low carbon development and investment to foster the sustainable use of ecosystem services. In many ways, mountain economies are already quite "green" in terms of carbon emissions — the challenge, however, is to remain green with economic growth driven by energy and agriculture. There nonetheless remains a unique opportunity to take concerted action to conserve and develop mountain ecosystem for sustainable development for all.
In spite of tremendous pressure on resources, mountain people are incredibly resilient and display high adaptive capacity in the face of change, developing personalized solutions based on their knowledge and experience. These solutions can and will create positive externalities for the global community: watershed management, soil conservation, indigenous seed varieties, water storage, and biodiversity conservation. There is an urgent need to harness and reward this creative energy.
Global action is required to counter the negative pressures coming from problems created outside mountain regions such global warming and atmospheric pollution. The global community must look to mountains to resolve issues of energy, water and food security, and to help people cope. To date, the conservation efforts of mountain people remain unrewarded, yet the benefits are for all of us. Institutional mechanisms need to be established and strengthened to secure the payment and reward mechanisms for mountain ecosystems services including surface and ground water, water storage and others relating to energy and food security. What happens to mountains is of global concern — whether or not there will be enough food and energy for all will depend in part on what happens in mountain regions. Mountain problems are special due to their remoteness, unique ecosystems and fragility. Their importance must therefore never be overlooked and should be properly recognized in global climate change and sustainable development negotiations.
Dr. David Molden is Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based in Nepal serving the Hindu-Kush Himalayan Region.
Dr Golam Rasul, Head, Economic Analysis Division (ICIMOD), is actively involved in research and development work in agriculture, water, food security, poverty alleviation, environment and regional cooperation in South Asia for more than 20 years.
Dr. Ramesh Vaidya is Senior Advisor at ICIMOD and his interest and experience is in the economics and policy of water and energy in the context of regional economic cooperation and climate change.