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The pandemic must bring us together

David James Molden

5 mins Read

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It is clear that the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are very high for the people of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). As this crisis unfolds, it might seem difficult to imagine how we can move towards prosperity in the mountains. But that is just what we need to do amidst the suffering; we need to imagine together, and work towards building a more resilient and prosperous HKH. Most countries in the region have imposed some kind of lockdown, and vast numbers of people are staying at home at the time of this writing. Even while it is fortunate that most of the HKH mountain areas have so far escaped the huge toll of sickness and death seen in other parts of the world, suffering has taken on different forms as a result of mountain specificities. This crisis has opened our eyes to the many vulnerabilities of mountain people and underlined the importance of our work in amplifying the voices of mountain people and in working towards a prosperous future for the HKH.

ICIMOD staff are working from home, many from their respective countries. It is quite remarkable how well this is going, and I’m very proud of the work that our staff have been able to do remotely. Our internal COVID Task Force monitors the situation daily, and provides information and support to staff to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

Despite the distancing, we remain connected to communities in the HKH to get updates and understand the challenges they are facing. While we look forward to getting back to the field among mountain communities and our partners as soon as possible, we are making adjustments to our planned work and are preparing analyses and recommendations focusing on the crisis in the HKH mountains, the impacts, and how to respond.

Even before COVID-19, there was a crisis of sustainable development – with 1/3 of people living in poverty and 50% facing some form of malnutrition – in mountain areas. This crisis also includes the impacts of climate change and our HKH mountains are particularly vulnerable to climate change, with temperatures rising faster than the global average and glaciers receding. Now the COVID-19 crisis presents new challenges: many migrant workers are now stuck trying to reach their families and safe places; remittance flows, important for poverty reduction, are curtailed for many families; water availability – whether for basic needs or to maintain personal hygiene – is not keeping pace with rising demand, and basic hand washing can be a challenge; and food security is a real issue for many now, and a looming question for millions of mountain dwellers.

We need short-, medium-, and long-term responses, and we need to seize the opportunities present in this situation to bounce back more sustainably. There will be significant government investment into economies and jobs to overcome the crisis, and it is important that these investments also target long-term sustainability. While investments need to target immediate needs, they also need to target resilience-building measures such as entrepreneurial skills and nature-based solutions for mountains, and they need to include measures to address climate change such as clean energy and energy efficiency.

We know that disasters like this have the potential to compound gender inequalities in societies. Women once again are on the frontline of another crisis, playing important roles in health care and social services, and in their own homes and families, where women and girls are the ones largely tasked with providing care to the sick, children, and elderly; managing food stocks and household chores; and provisioning water for domestic use. In the hills and mountains, 80% of households do not have clean energy for cooking, and the smoke from biomass burning puts women at additional risk as people with respiratory problems are at more risk of severe consequences of COVID-19. Unfortunately, gender-based violence is increasing as people huddle together in close quarters during lockdown. Our continued focus on gender transformative action underpins all of our work in response to this crisis. We believe that creating a more prosperous post-pandemic HKH is possible and part of getting there requires making visible gender roles and concerns and giving long overdue value to the roles of women.

With food production and marketing links hit hard, we worry whether a hunger crisis in the mountain will follow the COVID-19 crisis. To avoid this, urgent and smart action is needed in agriculture and to provide food and nutritional security. In the HKH, we see migrant workers returning home, remittances drying up, and a heavy reliance on food imports from the plains. An alarming trend we had noticed before the crisis was mountain people giving up growing nutritious crops for reliance on food transported from the plains. There is an immediate need to focus on food production and marketing, and to anticipate food shortages in many regions so that timely relief can be provided. In the long term, the crisis may open doors for more resilient and nutritious food systems. There is a need to refocus on local food systems, and growing diverse and nutritious foods, and expanding the value chains for mountain products. This could be an opportunity to revitalize mountain farming to support livelihoods.

Cooperation between HKH countries will be important in the immediate future and in the long run and we do appreciate the efforts by the governments and many stakeholders of our Regional Member Countries in containing the spread of the disease. However, the region is now facing a serious crisis of livelihoods. Given the spread of the disease across borders, but also the flow of human labour and food, there is a need for greater cooperation between countries. And we have seen important signs that this is happening, for example with SAARC countries working together to address the crisis.

The work ICIMOD has done to focus global attention on mountain areas and to bring countries together to cooperate for mountains and people is paying off now, and will have huge payoffs in the future. Let us work together across boundaries in the HKH and as a global community to respond to the shocks from this and other crises and to make possible a resilient and prosperous HKH.

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