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The fragility of our mountains

Pema Gyamtsho

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February has been an eventful month. It started with a tragedy in Uttarakhand, India, which once again reminded us all of the fragility and volatility of our HKH environment. The flooding event that led to the loss of many lives and the destruction it left behind is a costly reminder that we need to pause and re-think development in our region. This is not just in terms of taking into account the inherent hazards that are present in our relatively young mountain environments but also in terms of the potential risks which climate change brings to it.

While the exact causes and sequence of events that led to the Uttarakhand disaster were unclear in the beginning, we have a much better understanding now. What we saw in the various videos circulating in media and social media was the result of a potent mix of complex geological and weather processes and the impact of climate change. Our colleagues have analysed all available data to present a complete picture of what happened on that fateful day.

As we continue to consider the implications and lessons from this unfortunate event in the Indian Himalaya, a couple of things have become glaringly clear. First, there is a strong need for transboundary collaboration on issues pertaining to our shared mountains. What we saw in Uttarakhand can happen anywhere in the HKH region, just as suddenly. All HKH countries must learn from each other and support one another in such times of crisis.

Second, it is now even clearer that we have to collaboratively monitor high mountain environments in our region, especially glaciers and glacial lakes. Knowledge and data sharing is instrumental in not only minimizing potential barriers to development but also saving lives. It is important that we learn and share best practices in matters like early warning systems and infrastructure development. At the same time, it will also be valuable to learn from things which might not have worked so well. Taking climate change inevitabilities into consideration, this point becomes even more crucial and important.

This month also brought some good news and developments which I am happy to share. On 17–18 February, we had the opportunity to have in-depth interactions with Alok Sharma, UK Member of Parliament, and President of COP26. It was heartening to see the COP26 President’s interest and concern for our region and his commitment to ensure that the voices of our mountain communities are heard during this year’s most important global climate conference. It will now be important for our HKH member countries to come together and stand united to ensure that the HKH and its peoples are no longer on the margins of global negotiations.

I am also extremely happy to share that our application to the Adaptation Fund was successful and we are now one of seven institutions globally to be certified as a Regional Implementing Entity. This is a huge honour for us and a major achievement for the HKH region, as we can now start supporting our eight member countries on concrete adaptation projects to address our shared climate crisis. We are confident that this will be a major step forward in helping build preparedness and resilience among our vulnerable mountain communities for the years ahead.

February has therefore been an important month for us, both institutionally and for the region as whole. In the coming months, we will continue to update you on all of these developments. As we start gathering momentum for the year ahead, let us all commit to ensure that no mountain community is left behind in the face of calamities and climate change impacts.

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