Managing Mountains for Ecological Services and Environmental SecurityJanuary 16, 2013 By Caroline Boules
High mountain regions face grave environmental challenges with climate change impacts already as severe as any place on earth. Temperature increases are expected to be greater at higher altitudes than at sea level, and glaciers and snowfields are retreating in many areas, increasing the risk of catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods, affecting fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions of people, and exacerbating territorial and natural resource disputes.
Panelists from The Mountain Institute, USAID, George Mason University, and ClimateWire recently discussed this oft-overlooked realm of environmental change at a Managing the Planet event at the Wilson Center, co-sponsored by the Brazil Institute, Environmental Change and Security Program, and George Mason University.
Climate Change, Human Change
Mountains cover a quarter of the Earth’s landmass and contain 10 percent of the global population, said Andrew Taber, executive director of The Mountain Institute.
They also provide a multitude of environmental services. Many of the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse locations are in mountain regions; ice melt provides fresh water to approximately 1.5 billion people; and mountains often play important roles in health and recreation activities and contribute to their nation’s economic development, Taber said. In Nepal, one percent of the entire GDP comes from tourism at a single mountain area, and Peru obtains $400 million annually from tourism in Machu Picchu, he continued.
The problems facing mountain regions are numerous. Although it may seem that mountains are impermeable, this is far from true, Taber said.
Climate change is the most serious threat, since the climate is changing at high altitudes faster than lower ones. This is leading to snow-cover melt, species extinction, and glacier retreat. As glaciers retreat, fresh water supplies will become more scarce for mountain communities in the long term – and those downstream. In the short term, many high mountain lakes are growing very quickly, some of which can be dangerous if they break their natural barriers suddenly – a phenomenon known as a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF. Imja Glacier Lake in Nepal is one such rapidly growing lake that The Mountain Institute has taken expeditions to. If its terminal moraine – a buildup of debris that acts as a retaining wall holding the lake back – breaks, the flood waters would threaten numerous Sherpa communities and the staging zone for many attempting to climb Mount Everest.
The melting of glaciers is also uncovering rocks that have been buried for millennia, sometimes causing certain toxins to leach into water systems, Taber said. We cannot know the full range of future impacts from glacial melt at this time, he noted, and there is a real need for an increase in field work, which is often the only way to tell what’s going on.
Climate change is also challenging traditional mountain culture. For example, traditional flat roof architecture may not be possibly in certain areas in the future as a result of changing rainfall patterns. These changes may seem slight, but require expensive adaptation and, Taber noted, mountainous communities are frequently among the most economically disadvantaged in their respective nations.
Besides a changing climate, natural resource management – from mining to pollution – is also affecting many mountain ecosystems. A typical mountain system faces a large range of issues, including deforestation, endangered species, out-migration, and land tenure issues. As resources become more valuable or scarce, mountain regions have also become more prone to conflict. Over half of the world’s wars and insurgencies happen in mountainous locales, Taber said.
But despite these diverse challenges, Taber said that mountain ecosystems have been given short shrift in the research and policy communities. When The Mountain Institute conducted a survey of works on Google Scholar, they found that mountains are receiving less attention than other ecosystems, such as marine and forest ecosystems. The United States spends $250 million annually on forest conservation programs abroad, he said, but mountain ecosystems do not appear on donors’ agendas in the same way.
Friedman said that there is a great need for more reporting on mountain ecosystems so that the people who need the most support and attention from the global community receive it. But there are several barriers to this happening.
One is that it is difficult to measure how quickly glaciers are retreating in general and even harder to link their retreat specifically to climate change. Another is that the highly publicized 2007 IPCC error about glaciers in the Himalayas disappearing by 2035 undermined the public’s understanding of the situation and made some more suspicious of similar prognostications. Environmental groups also occasionally exaggerate the truth in order to make their point, she said, so it is critical for reporters to be incredibly clear and straightforward in their reporting.
Despite these challenges, since such large quantities of funding are being devoted to climate change adaptation projects and nations will be competing for these funds, there is a critical need for more investigation, Friedman concluded.
Climate Adaptation or Development?
John Furlow, a climate change specialist at USAID, brought a donor’s perspective to the discussion.
Adaptation work at USAID is relatively new, he said, having only obtained a budget in 2009. To maximize their investments, the agency is looking for areas where climate impacts will be relatively sudden and drastic, and hence where the response will need to be quick.
If a community’s source of water is glaciers, and those are disappearing – as is the case in Peru and Bolivia, for example – that would fit into the types of projects USAID is seeking, he said. However, one of the reasons that governments are neglecting these issues is that most of their population lives in urban areas, isolated from the mountains, making it difficult to justify the cost of interventions.
As highlighted by Friedman and Taber, lack of good data is also a challenge to bringing more government and donor attention. To that end, the National Science Foundation recently organized a workshop in the Andes with the aim of answering whether or not we know enough to take action now to build resilience in the future. The workshop also emphasized communication between various groups that have interests in mountain water issues. They brought together three groups of people: campesinos (peasants), hydropower companies, and government representatives and gave them the means to express their thoughts and grievances with one another, and arranged for a group of Peruvians to travel to Nepal to exchange information about common mountain and water issues.
Mountain ecosystems are clearly changing rapidly, Furlow said, but USAID needs to maintain a focus on development and livelihoods. In some cases the links between climate change and these issues are obvious, but in others it is not so apparent. Therefore, he urged that climate change issues be framed within a livelihoods and development context. Mountain communities often have great ideas, he said, but more work needs to be done directly with them to find new partnerships.
So what can be done? Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar Ruth Greenspan Bell suggested a bottom-up approach of networking and experience-sharing between effected mountain communities. This method would take note of current local efforts that are succeeding and work on scaling those up.
Forming committees, holding forums – these things have all been done already, Bell said, and there are numerous global agreements on climate change. Some people maintain that there needs to be a “mountains convention” which would bring global focus to these issues, she said, but broad international conventions require long timetables for negotiation, often combine too many issues, and the likelihood of U.S. ratification is remote (see the lack of movement on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). Additionally, the negotiation process often becomes a lightning rod and people’s energy is depleted by the negotiations themselves instead of by dealing with the issue. Finally, she noted that there is a poor track record of actual change coming from the vast body of international environmental agreements.
Although funders tend to gravitate towards large solutions, a grassroots-led effort would be more nimble, Bell said. Small failures would not be as catastrophic and there would be the potential to build unlikely coalitions and alliances.
Whatever the mechanic, Faber emphasized that integrated approaches, that tackle environmental, economic, and equity issues together, are needed. And full stakeholder engagement is crucial, including the involvement of national and local governments; the private sector and civil society; and especially downstream stakeholders.
Caroline Boules is a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University researching climate change adaptation in dryland agricultural systems. The Managing the Planet series is a joint series of dialogues organized by the Wilson Center and George Mason University about global environmental challenges.
Photo Credit: “Living on Mountains of Tea – Darjeeling, India,” courtesy of flickr user Daniel Peckham.