Translating science-based evidence about climate change into policy and practice key to viable adaptation
By Saleem Shaikh
Spread over 4.3 million sq kms area over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east and inhabitated by over 210 million people, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region is grappled with a range of socio-economic issues including deepening poverty and worsening natural resource base. Climate change has aggravated the socio-economic woes.
But these issues can be addressed to a considerable extent by means of viable, well-thought climate change mitigation and adaptation, collaboration in exchange of scientific know-how and technology transfer among the eight HKH regional countries that include: Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, India, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Known as ‘water towers of Asia’, 18 percent of the HKH region is covered by snow, over 60,000 sq kms by glaciers, 6,000 by ice reserves that can irrigate all of Asia for three years and South Asia for 5-6 years, according to Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development Centre (ICIMOD).
Having four out of 34 global biodiversity hotspots 60 out of 200 global ecoregions, the region’s fragile mountain ecosystem at risk due to rapidly changing weather patterns and surging temperatures due to global warming.
“Climate change, land use change, infrastructure development, urbanization in mountains and out-migration are key drivers of the change, which continue to deepen poverty in the mountains of HKH region despite rich natural resources,” said Dr. Eklabya Sharma, director programme operations at ICIMOD.
In his thought-provoking address to the plenary session of the international conference ‘Mountain People Adapting to Change – Solutions Beyond Boundaries Bridging Science, Policy and Practice’ (Nov. 9 to Nov.12) in Kathmandu, Dr. Eklabya Sharma highlighted that high altitude areas are heating more and there has become uncertainty on the seasonality and intensity. Besides, permafrost melting and vulnerabilities of debris flow and deposition on productive agricultural land in downstream in the HKH regional countries including India and Pakistan are likely to happen.
The region is is the source of 10 large Asian river systems -– the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan), – and provides water, ecosystem services, and the basis for livelihoods to a population of around 210.53 million people in the region. The basins of these rivers provide water to 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population. But various studies by different globally acclaimed organisations including ICIMOD about impacts of changing weather patterns, global warming rapidly shrinking glaciers, erratic and shifting rainfall and snowfall patterns warn of negative impacts on river flows, glaciers and ecosystem and livelihoods of the people, particularly farmers.
However, these transboundary and common regional issues can be coped with through adaptation strategies that connect science, policy and practice, suggested Sharma.
Although natural-resources rich mountain areas in the HKH region provide services to the 1.3 billion people living downstream in 10 major river basins, about 3 to 4 billion people indirectly rely on the food and energy produced from HKH resources.
ICIMOD’s director-general, David Molden, suggested during the inaugural session of the conference that because these mountains are a place of incredible biodiversity, the HKH region’s food security will depend on the agricultural diversity hidden in mountain areas.
“Mountain people in the HKH region have developed a huge diversity of options to adapt to numerous different mountain environments and impacts of climate change. Indeed many of the solutions on how to adapt are already here in the mountains and an easy win seems to be to re-discover these and share that knowledge among the regional countries,” Molden pointed out.
Spelling out mountain issues, he says mountain people are experiencing climate change at an unprecedented rate. Fragile mountain ecosystems, already with high rates of poverty, are highly vulnerable to the rapidly changing climate. Adding to climate change, air pollution contributes to glacier melt and negatively impacts human health and growth of crops. The natural hazards of floods and droughts increases with changing weather patterns, he added.
To address these socio-economic issues in the HKH region, being aggravated further recently by climate change, action has to happen at all scales.
“We have to deal across scale from communities to nations, to this region and globe. It is important to bring the message of the mountains to the global community and strive to move science-based evidence [about the impacts of global warming on the mountain communities and their livelihoods in the region] into policy and how think ponder over how this evidence-based knowledge can be made more useful and viable for action,” stressed David Molden.
Meanwhile, addressing the state of knowledge about impacts of black carbon on glaciers in the HKH regional countries including India, Nepal and Pakistan also came under discussion by the interactive panel on ‘Emerging concerns: Black Carbon and the Crysphere’.
Dr Tobias Bolch of the University of Zurich noted the need for more elaborate in situ and remote sensing-based studies to take stock of the deposit of black carbon on glaciers in the region.
ICIMOD’s atmospheric science specialist, Dr Arnico Panday, said that linkages of sources and impacts of black carbon across the whole geographical region of the HKH are of paramount significance that can help come up with viable solutions to mitigate impacts of the black carbon on glaciers.
Experts from the developed and developing countries at the international moot were of the view that mountain communities must come come hand in hand with a “unified” voice in climate change adaptation discussions and to chalk out new ways of sharing knowledge, increasing stakeholder engagement and building strong partnerships.
“There is no constraint to the importance of the HKH, both for people in the mountains and for those living downstream,” Dr. KC Paudel, a representative of the Nepalese ministry, told the conference.
However, the ecosystem balance in the region is being threatened by climatic and socioeconomic changes, which affect millions of people. Solutions to the problems facing the region must go beyond political, sectorial and national boundaries, he said.
“Adaptation is the lifeline for the mountains,” Paudel emphasized.
“Mountains are upstream early warning systems that signal significant risks to downstream communities,” Christiana Fiqureres, executive secretary at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) said in a video presentation.
Solutions discussed by the more than 300 participants focused on greater involvement from mountain communities in climate change discussions and better integration of science and traditional knowledge.
“The region may be data-deficient, but it is not knowledge-deficient. We need to harness our own knowledge and transform this into action,” said Anil Sinha, vice chairman of India’s Bihar State Disaster Management Authority. “Scientific advancements are being brought into policy and practice, but there is a need to look at issues from the point of view of the people to make them more relevant for adaptation.”
Actions proposed by conference participants to support adaptation include creating a unified mountain voice through global cooperation, promoting institutional pluralism in global assessments, supporting mechanisms for collective learning among stakeholders, supporting local-level adaptation techniques, and increasing collaboration with media and civil society to improve communication on adaptation.
“Development could be undercut by issues related to climate change and adaptation. Keeping these issues in the global agenda is not only essential, it’s imperative,” said Jamie McGoldrick, resident coordinator of the United Nations Development Program in Nepal.
“Mountain countries need more platforms … to bring together science, policy, and practice to create a unified voice to take these issues to the global stage,” he said.
The writer is Islamabad-based climate change communication specialist, media trainer, freelance contributor and UNFCCC media fellow.