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Climate services for enhanced food security in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Abid Hussain & Faisal Mueen Qamar

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Food deprivation is more severe in the mountains than in the plains in many South Asian countries. Despite the region’s wealth of natural resources, a significant percentage of the population in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) experience food insecurity and malnutrition—31% of the population is food insecure and 50% is undernourished.

Such high vulnerability and food insecurity is linked to low productivity and subsistence economies. In the past few decades, climate change and rising incidences of related hazards, i.e. droughts and floods, have increased vulnerability to food insecurity. Prolonged dry spells and droughts, which have occurred more frequently in recent decades than ever before, are steadily depleting the region’s natural resource base. This has led to a significant decline in food production and degraded rangelands, particularly in western parts of the HKH region.

At the beginning of the present century, a drought that lasted four years—from 1998 to 2002—caused acute shortage of water for agriculture in Balochistan province of Pakistan. The drought affected nearly two million acres of arable land and 9.3 million livestock. From 2001 to 2013, devastating floods were observed in Uttarakhand state of India. Flood incidences are increasing in drier mountain areas such as Ladakh in India and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. Some downstream areas, including the Indian state of Bihar, have faced floods more severe than ever before in recent years. Additionally, some parts of the HKH region, particularly in Nepal and Pakistan, have become more vulnerable to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

Food insecurity originating from erratic weather patterns is a major concern. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for timely and accurate information on indicators related to climate and crop conditions in response to these growing challenges. A lot of climate information has been made available in the past decade but their use by decision makers at the local and management levels remains relatively low.

The gap between potential solutions and old-fashioned practices on the ground underlines the importance of establishing effective climate services based on new technologies. An effective mechanism for providing climate services to local people and policy makers may significantly reduce the rate at which climate change induced ‘hazards’ turn into ‘disasters’. Losses in agriculture and threats to food security, livelihoods, and infrastructure, as well as the number of fatalities to disasters can be reduced by ensuring timely provision of climate services and their use in disaster preparedness and management.

A drought monitoring and early warning system, for instance, can support national- and local-level planning and agro-advisory services to help local populations and governments prepare for drought and cope with its impacts on agriculture. Similarly, community based flood early warning systems (CBFEWS) can also provide effective early warning regarding debris floods and flash floods. These can alert vulnerable communities who can then relocate their moveable assets, food items, and livestock to safer places, reducing the risks of both transitory and chronic food insecurity.

Along with disaster preparedness measures, a range of climate-resilient adaptation practices— micro irrigation systems, water harvesting and storage practices, and soil nutrient management—can be customized to local situations. Such practices can play a vital role in improving food security in the HKH region.

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