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The pandemic’s long shadow

Pema Gyamtsho

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As this news digest reaches you in this first month of 2022 and we while we continue to hope for relief from COVID-19, I’d like to reflect back on all that we were able to accomplish in 2021 despite the limitations. As I reflect back on this year past, I see that the world over, institutions explored new working conditions and many people adopted completely different ways of living. Here at ICIMOD, we embraced the hybrid working environment to ensure the safety of our families, co-workers, and partners. We became better at some things, like organizing webinars and moving training events online, but these are not without their limitations. We witnessed how the development divide reflects starkly in the digital divide and we missed the field work and in-person events that are critically important to our work.

In early spring, we were also dealing with uncontrollable forest fires and high pollution levels across the Himalaya, including in parts of Bhutan, the Indian Himalaya Region, and Nepal. The causes were bone dry conditions, following a particularly dry winter season, which created conditions for one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory. Soon after, the monsoon brought heavy rains and floods across the hills and mountains, affecting mountain communities and their livelihoods. The ICIMOD Disaster Task Force responded quickly to two major disasters – the Chamoli and the Melamchi flood events – compiling reports that analysed causes and consequences and the lessons they hold for development planning and disaster risk reduction, particularly the risk of cascading hazards and the need for multihazard risk management. As the UN ESCAP Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2021 report warns, the convergence of the pandemic with natural hazards, made worse by climate change, has expanded the disaster “riskscape”. To understand and better prepare for future disasters we continue our work on disaster risk reduction, flood early warning systems, and fire mapping and prediction tools.

In June, we welcomed our new Deputy Director General, Izabella Koziell, who brings to the team a great depth and breadth of experience working on research, policy, and development, including on issues critical for our region, like climate change, water, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation. She brought fresh inputs to our preparations for the CBD COP15 and the UNFCCC COP26 meetings, and kick-started preparations on the new ICIMOD Strategy for 2023–2030.

We continue to draw strength and inspiration from our very supportive and committed Board of Governors, ICIMOD Support Group, Programme Advisory Committee, and Finance Committee. Despite the heavy demands on their time, they attended the entire virtual Board Meeting held from 6-10 September to discuss, suggest changes and approve our reports, plans and budget and provide directions on the development of the new strategy. The Board Meeting was highly successful and ended on a very positive note.

We have been engaging in various COP events and processes for over a decade now, focusing on highlighting conservation and development challenges and the aspirations and vulnerabilities of HKH mountain communities. In preparation for COP15 – critically important as it sets direction for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework – we brought together the CBD focal points from our regional member countries to assess where we stand in terms of biodiversity targets and priorities for the next decade. In preparation for COP26, we brought together the UNFCCC national focal points of our regional member countries, members of the HKH High-Level Task Force, and representatives from the COP26 Presidency. We officially launched our #HKH2Glasgow campaign, amplifying mountain voices for climate action in our region.

At Glasgow, we participated in several key meetings and organized several events at the Cryosphere Pavilion as a part of the Hindu Kush Himalaya Focus Day on 9 November 2021. We were able to make a strong case for ambitious climate action in the HKH, and the Mountains of Opportunity Framework that we presented – which aims to scale up climate-smart investment in six mountain-specific priorities – was strongly supported by the Prime Minister of Nepal and high-level representatives of other regional member countries.

In the last quarter, we invested a great deal of our time in developing the new ICIMOD Strategy 2023–2030. Starting with the Board meeting in September, where we received guidance and inputs from RMC Board members, the ICIMOD Support Group, and the Programme Advisory Committee; the staff consultations in October; and a Strategy Retreat in December, we were able to brainstorm together and consult with partners on the content and strategic direction of our work over the next decade. We are grateful to the Board, ISG and PAC members for responding enthusiastically to our requests for advice and views on the new strategy.

The year ended on a sad note as we mourned the passing of Andreas Schild, our former Director General, who played a significant role in shaping ICIMOD into the organization that is it today. In his honour, we have renamed the ICIMOD Mountain Prize to the Dr Andreas Schild Memorial Mountain Prize. This year’s winners included the Community Homestay Network from Nepal and the Mahila Umang Producers Company from Uttarakhand for their outstanding work and response in building the resilience of HKH communities during the pandemic.

And so, as we reflect on another challenging year gone by, we must think carefully about what a post-COVID future would look like for the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Even after this pandemic curve comes down, as it must, the impacts of the pandemic will linger. The year ahead may or may not bring the curtain down on this crisis, but we enter 2022 better informed and better prepared. It may sound clichéd, but it is well worth repeating that this crisis provides an opportunity for us to pivot away from business as usual and reorient our development pathways to address emerging and systemic challenges, such as climate change, habitat loss, and growing inequality in the region.

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