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International Mountain Day 2017

David James Molden

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Mountains rise from the earth as tectonic plates collide over millennia; volcanic magma pushes upward sending peaks soaring into the sky, raising land masses literally formed by pressure.

Spanning eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) are called “young fold” mountains because they formed only a few million years ago, making them relative youngsters among mountain ranges around the world. Today, these mountains provide resources to more than 2.1 billion people living throughout central and southern Asia.

Historically, as it rose from the earth’s crust, the HKH quickly became a crucial site for habitation, for people as well as a magnificent variety of plant and animal species that evolved and flourished in the abundant food, water and shelter. The biodiversity of the HKH is on par with that of Brazilian rainforests.

The HKH provides not only for those living within its plentiful verdant hills and valleys. Communities living in its hulking shadow downstream draw from countless rivers that power irrigation, hygiene and industry. These rivers spring from massive reservoirs of snow and ice atop the HKH, which give the region its nickname, “The Third Pole.”

Today, however, different types of pressure prevail in the HKH, which threaten the health of these vital ecosystems and the billions of people who depend on these resources. These pressures are cyclical and contingent, bringing unprecedented challenges to the HKH.

Climate change effects are increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. The catastrophic floods in Nepal and India this past year demonstrate that communities and governments are struggling to minimize and recover from these disasters.

Climate change is also disrupting HKH weather and cropping patterns, which enables the spread of disease and makes agriculture a less predictable occupation, resulting in fluctuating prices for consumers and making farming a more difficult business. These factors together contribute to higher rates of food insecurity in the HKH.

In this context, mountain families are pushed and pulled into migration, lured, on one hand, by the promise of better lives in urban centres, but also driven away from their homes by disaster and poverty. As a result, migration (primarily male) to urban centers and international destinations decimates local labor forces while intensifying work burdens on women and the elderly who stay behind. Urban centers struggle to accommodate the added population, while the surplus labor means that wages will remain low and underproductive.

Climate, food insecurity and migration… these triplet pressures interact in myriad ways to disrupt and diminish the quality of life and environment in the HKH. Individually we can revise our own behavior, but what can we do on a larger scale?

At ICIMOD, we focus on resilience – the ability to prepare for shocks, recover from shocks, and create transformative change in mountain communities.

Along river basins in the HKH, we work with local people to install flood early warning systems that offer additional precious minutes and hours to prepare for oncoming floods and landslides, minimizing the loss of property and human life in the process. Across national borders, we work with governments and partners to create institutions that focus on resilience building in vulnerable communities. This year we hosted Resilience HKH, an international conference that drew together more than 300 experts to share ideas for enhancing the abilities of mountain communities to endure these pressures on their lives and livelihoods.

We also look to a future where mountain communities strengthen their economies and livelihoods through a range of strategies. Value-added mountain products, like honey and cardamom, can fetch high prices and a diversity of these kinds of products could help buffer against economic shocks. To bring these products to buyers, improved market links are needed to ensure fast efficient delivery of mountain goods. Low-cost technologies such as jholmal (an organic fertilizer), polyhouses, and rainwater harvesters empower farmers to produce more crops with fewer inputs of land and water.

These are just a few examples of our work. Like the pressure that drives the mountains upward into stunning marvels of physical beauty, so we aspire to change today’s pressures of climate, food insecurity, and migration into transformative possibility for mountain people in the HKH, and mountains everywhere.

On International Mountain Day, we link arms with sisters and brothers across the Himalaya and the world to call attention to this unique and precious resource. And we ask you to join us in this mission – to recognize that mountains matter and that healthy mountains mean a healthy future for everyone.

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