Integrating adaptive responses for mountains and watersheds, focusing on the Andes and the Himalaya mountains

Source: Outreach

Anil Mishra, UNESCO; Saurabh Dani, World Bank; Ania Grobicki, Global Water Partnership; and Magdalena AK Muir, Coastal and Marine Union (EUCC), The ECNC Group

The Quelccaya ice cap in Peru showing the retreat of the ice tongue in 2000, where the closest shore of the lake shows how far this ice extended in 1978.
The Quelccaya ice cap in Peru showing the retreat of the ice tongue in 2000, where the closest shore of the lake shows how far this ice extended in 1978.

Ice and water are defining aspects of the earth and global hydrological systems, and play a crucial role in supporting biodiversity and life. Snow and ice contribute to the water supplies of millions located in the mountains, valleys and nearby coasts, and play a significant role in ensuring water security and climatic stability.

Mountains are among the ecosystems most sensitive to climate change. Glaciers within the Andes, Pamir, Tian Shun, Hindu Kush-Himalayas, and in Europe and the Americas, are experiencing rapid ice mass declines, which will have consequences on the large and often vulnerable mountain populations and their livelihoods, as well as river watershed, flows and biodiversity. Inter-relationships between mountains and watersheds are explored for the Andes and the Himalaya mountains.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) policy brief launched last week at COP20 – ‘Our Global Water Towers: Ensuring Ecosystems Services from Mountains under Climate Change’ – discusses the role of mountains in the global hydrological system. The UNESCO brief provides decision makers with informational support and policies to adapt to climate change in mountain regions. The brief resulted from regional workshops, and highlights best practises for community adaptation and the role of mountains in global hydrological systems.

Mountain catchments provide more than half of humanity’s water for drinking, irrigation, industry, food and energy, with 23 per cent of their mountains being essential to downstream water supply, and another 30 per cent providing support for this supply. Mountains occupy 24 per cent of the Earth, with 1.2 billion people living within and adjacent to them. They are centres of biodiversity, and function as gene pools. They contain a high proportion of the world’s cultural and ethno-linguistic diversity, which is of value for knowledge and tourism. Healthy functioning mountain ecosystems regulate climate, air quality and water flow, and protect against natural hazards and extreme events.

Mountains are especially vulnerable to climate change, with glaciers and ecosystems providing early indications of change. Ecosystem-based adaptation is a vital tool to decrease vulnerability – which has significant consequences for mountain communities and the billions of people depending on mountains for water and other ecosystem services. One adaptation approach involves payment for ecosystem services to mountain communities, thus supporting ecosystems that provide long term services and benefits.

International scientific cooperation is vital to address the challenges of climate change. Strengthened regional cooperation, collaboration with local organisations and institutions, and enhanced knowledge sharing dialogue among policy makers, scientists and local stakeholders is needed to safeguard mountain ecosystems, their water services, and the resilience of dependent communities.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a regional learning and knowledge centre with a focus on mountains, watersheds and people. It supports mountainous and downstream communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Some of the foci of ICIMOD are glaciers, glacial lakes, snow, climate change, and implications for mountainous and downstream communities and ecosystems, which are all relevant for acquiring the information and knowledge and building cooperation for adaptation.

The 2014 World Bank report, ‘On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives’, discusses how climate change, combined with black carbon, is affecting glaciers and ice in mountains. The report lays out 14 specific measures that could be taken by 2030 to reduce short-lived climate pollutants and slow the melting of ice and snow, in order to slow the increase in ocean and global temperatures.

The extent of glaciers in the Andean region

The Himalayan mountain ranges are the largest freshwater source outside the poles, supplying water to 1.5 billion people. Though warming is occurring unevenly across the Himalayas, ice and snow melt is causing floods in some downstream areas and droughts in others.

Within the Andes, declining glaciers support Andean watersheds, fertile inter-Andean valleys and mountain and valley communities, and the arid Pacific coasts where large communities, such as Lima, are situated. The tropical Andes ecosystems contained in these inter-Andean valleys are globally significant regions for biodiversity and rich genetic reservoirs for future adaptation and sustainable development. The Peruvian hosting of COP20 provides a vital opportunity to highlight the importance of ice and snow in the Andean mountains, and the role of mountain, valley and coastal communities in adaptive ecosystem efforts.

Further Information:
PDF version of November 11, 2014 issue  of Outreach:
Web based version of November 11, 2014 issue  of Outreach:

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