ICIMOD Director General

Opening Speech

David Molden 

3 December 2017

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) extend 3,500 km from Afghanistan to Myanmar, and provide a home to 210 million people residing in the mountains and hills. Incredibly rich in cultural diversity, the HKH is home to 1,000 different languages, and a rich repository of traditional knowledge. Ten major river basins originate in the HKH, serving 1.3 billion people, and indirectly, 3 to 4 billion people if we think about the food and energy produced in the region. The HKH is an important energy source, carbon stock, and rich in biodiversity, all of which are important for our future. The HKH is certainly an asset for Asia and the globe.

Eight countries share this mountain resource base: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. We know that shared management of resources at the local, national and regional levels can lead to more benefits to all. Yet we also know that at this point in time that in depth cooperation amongst HKH countries is difficult. In spite of this political reality, I want to argue that a focus on mountains can lead to better development outcomes, faster and more equitable growth, and more regional cooperation and peace.

The Paris Agreement placed two degrees as a global average temperature rise which should not be crossed. But a two-degree rise for the rest of the world would mean three to four degrees in the mountains – and that would have dire consequences for the HKH and for the globe. Glacial melt would increase, weather events would become more severe, and food cropping patterns would change dramatically. Billions of lives would be directly affected. Achieving the SDGs to which countries have committed will be challenging.

Mitigation actions have to be much stronger than they are now.  The voice of mountains on the global stage has to be more pronounced to tell our story to the world. 

There is also a realization that in the HKH we are experiencing change in many different dimensions. There is climate change, but it is mixed with globalization, migration, urbanization, an increasing demand and use of water and energy, and a growing infrastructure development, we call this climate + change.  It is the interaction of all these factors that adds complexity to our understanding of the socio-ecology of the HKH.

However, we need to acknowledge that while change brings challenges, change also offers opportunity. For example, high mountain niche products when linked with markets can bring money to mountain people. Ecotourism is one example of mountain value chains, but there are others in agriculture like medicinal herbs, nuts and fruits.

The mountains can take the lead in innovations in clean energy to provide energy for all. There is an increased role for empowering mountain women which will open doors for more sustainable management of mountain resources. And we can take advantages of linkages between upstream and downstream people to share the benefits of development equitably. 

At ICIMOD we have learned that mountains present other kinds of opportunities as well: opportunities for collaboration, opportunities for partnership and private investment, opportunities for youth and opportunities to envision and work toward a future where mountains can become examples of changes that can inspire the rest of the world. We know that mountains bring us together.

So we are here this week to talk about resilience and in my welcome address I said that Resilience is the ability of communities and ecosystems to be prepared for shocks, recover from shocks, and “bounce forward” to emerge stronger than before

This week we’ll hear from experts around the globe speaking on the topic of resilience and sharing ideas and solutions that can build resilience in vulnerable communities. We believe these small interventions will become the foundation of transformative change that can reshape lives in the HKH and beyond. 

To understand resilience, our researchers looked at 30 earthquake affected communities to identify the factors that may have helped these areas recover. And we found six factors to be common across these sites: natural resource endowment, physical connectivity, access to external development services, entrepreneurship, social homogeneity, and local economy.

However, we also noted that it wasn’t simply the presence of these factors that led to resilience. On one hand, the context mattered greatly from community to community, telling us that resilience solutions would need to be tailored according to a community’s needs. On the other hand, we observed that these factors were insignificant when exercised individually, but quite effective when developed in combination of other factors. 

Our study suggests that there is no universal solution – no silver bullet – when it comes to resilience building, and that several factors have to work together in solution packages.

Resilience solutions require the type of transdisciplinary work that is the heart of ICIMOD’s approach to socio-ecological challenges, an approach that appreciates context and “community science”, and one that brings researchers, practitioners, private sector, and governments together with communities.

Working for past 34 years in the HKH, we feel we have a pretty good understanding of what shocks mountain communities are facing. Some are long-term and some are short-term, but all of them impede the ability of mountain communities to become more robust and less vulnerable. 

In many ways communities in mountains and hills, and associated plains have already demonstrated resilience, and have adapted to very harsh living conditions. However, the changes brought about by climate plus change is reaching the limits for many people and communities. 

For example, we are hearing more and more about mountain springs drying up all across the region. For many communities – especially for women -- this means longer distances to fetch water for households. Lack of water in Nepali springs has resulted in farmers abandoning agriculture and youth migrating out in search of work. If we fail to address this challenge, the impact of water scarcity will cascade into longer-term issues of food and nutrition security for the region. 

For example, the threat of floods is increasing in the region. ICIMOD and partners have been working with governments and communities on flood early warning systems to help prepare and build resilience, both at the regional scale on big rivers and on smaller rivers prone to flash floods. 

I was inspired by a visit to northern Assam, near the foothills of the HKH, an area with increasing vulnerability to flash floods. Our colleagues had worked to set up a community based flood early warning system. The technology is a simple gadget that sets off an alarm when river levels rise, giving people a chance to move to higher ground.  When the alarm rings, a woman in charge will make phone calls downstream and to the government, who can react quickly to rescue people. To do this takes networking and institution building within a group of communities. 

Because there has been a lot of male outmigration from this area, we innovated with local partners to combine flood preparedness training with financial management training. So not only did women have their go-bags and water purification tablets ready, they also were managing remittance money better. And through this flood preparedness and institution building, the community made steps toward more resilience and eventual transformation 

Later we piloted an early warning system near the border between India and Nepal, working in three villages – two in Nepal and one in India. ICIMOD and partners organized cross border visits between the communities. The Panchayat Leader from India, quite an empowered woman, pleaded with the communities in Nepal to call them in case a flood arrived. Then in mid-August, massive flash floods hit, and the early warning systems worked, both in Nepal, and India, saving property and perhaps lives. This network and institution building helped to prepare for change, and will help people on both sides of the borders bounce forward.

I like this example because transdisciplinarity was in place. Researchers, development workers, got together with communities and government policy makers and media to make this happen. However, there is still work to scale up this type of intervention.

However, in spite of these examples, we know that greater resilience is still needed in the mountains. Not only to prepare for shocks or bounce back from shock but to design our solutions in such manner that opportunities are created for the communities to emerge stronger than ever. 

Addressing the concept of resilience reminds us of the need to work in an integrated fashion, addressing the social and scientific aspects of environmental problems. Building resilience also calls us to improve participation of all groups, particularly communities, women and youth in creating a vision and action plan for a more prosperous future.

In closing, I would like to turn briefly to the results of our Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme or HIMAP. HIMAP is an IPCCC-like assessment that brought hundreds of HKH experts to identify key actions for the future. 

To inspire its work, HIMAP worked toward a vision consistent with the SDGs:

  • A prosperous, peaceful and poverty free future
  • A future that is energy, water and environment secure,
  • And a future that is climate and disaster resilient.

To realize this vision, they recommend three priorities for action:

  • To cooperate at all levels across the HKH region for sustainable mountain development and mutual benefits. Regional cooperation will magnify upstream and downstream benefits. In contrast, the cost of noncooperation will be unacceptably high—with the heaviest burdens borne by the poor and marginalized.
  • To recognize and prioritize the uniqueness of the HKH mountains and people in national, regional, and global decision making institutions and processes, and ensure their representation in decision-making. To allocate significantly greater resources and identify incentives for conservation of benefits from mountain ecosystems.
  • To take concerted action to keep global level climate change to 1.5 degrees by 2100. 

I have touched on only a few, but significant issues and challenges to the HKH and a few ideas about resilience building. I would now like to turn to the panelists to explore these issues further.