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Addressing COVID-19 social and environmental impacts in the HKH

David James Molden

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We remain very concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 in our HKH region. While the situation is mixed in our ICIMOD countries regarding disease spread, across all of the countries there are concerns about livelihood and environmental impacts from the pandemic.

ICIMOD has prepared a policy document looking at how COVID-19 has impacted and what policies should respond for people and environments in the HKH mountains. The paper has been prepared by staff at ICIMOD from across disciplines and expertise areas, and reviewed by experts in our eight HKH countries.

The concerns for mountains are numerous. HKH countries have felt the sharp pains of dramatic economic decline and skyrocketing unemployment. Decreased mobility of workers has impacted remittance economies, and the lockdown has challenged many social and family norms. Mountain-based economies such as agriculture and tourism have collapsed, and mountain people are highly vulnerable to slide into chronic poverty. Entire food systems have been impacted as both input supplies and market links were abruptly disrupted, and hunger is a real concern. On a positive side, in the short run, carbon emissions have reduced, and people have appreciated cleaner air quality, demonstrating to us what is possible in the long run.

To address these concerns, mountain-specific actions are needed. Support for farmers to continue producing and marketing food and to establish food reserves to meet emergency needs will help prevent hunger and food insecurity. Small businesses, including those in the informal sector, need to be prevented from collapse. Data and reporting systems are quickly needed for the most marginalized communities, and protocols and accountability mechanisms are required to provide care for marginalized groups.

When the spread of COVID-19 is brought under control and restrictions are lifted, we need to start rebuilding and the key will be to rebuild for more sustainable livelihoods and resilience. Quick efforts are required to conserve and restore water sources and natural spring recharge areas both for farming and for household use, important now when hand-washing and hygiene are key concerns. Women’s organizational networks, already strong in many mountain communities, will be essential for short term responses and for long term involvement in decision-making.

Jobs need to be an immediate focus; economies more dependent on migration and remittances will likely not resume to previous levels and more mountain people will be looking for jobs. This is the time to rebuild toward a green economy, to strengthen organic agriculture and agribusiness for input and marketing support, and to build entrepreneurship around farming, forestry, energy and tourism. Rebuilding tourism will be important for mountain economies and now is the right time to make sure that tourism is eco-friendly and supports local communities. Financial systems need to be strengthened to provide inclusive services in support of resilient businesses.

The pandemic has shown us how interconnected the world is and how important it is to work together between countries whether on issues of health and recovery, migration, illegal wildlife trade, or climate change. Before the crisis, mountain issues were bringing countries together to address mountain concerns, and the eight HKH countries had built momentum around a jointly developed Call to Action based on the comprehensive science outlined in the HKH Assessment. That regional cooperation around mountains is needed now more than ever to develop mountain solutions, to manage mountain resources, to promote trade and tourism, and to promote overall equitable, sustainable and resilient mountain development. The resilient recovery of the HKH region requires stronger regional and international cooperation that solicits funding from the eight HKH countries and draws global investment to the region.

Beyond this, I’d like to share with you that all of our ICIMOD staff continue to work from home. Our meetings, conferences, trainings, writing and deskwork all continue online. We miss getting to the field, and the good interactions we have with our many partners. On the other hand, we are learning the advantages of connecting online – less travel, and the ability to reach out to more people in an effective way. We have prepared a back to office plan to make sure that we can do our work in the best way possible. When the situation starts to stabilize will move phase-wise back to the office.

As we move through these most challenging of time, please do keep mountain people in mind and support actions towards an inclusive and resilient HKH as we all recover from this crisis.

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