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Climate threats to high altitude areas

Climate threats to high altitude areas
People in mountains are one of the biggest victims of climate change. As negotiations at COP21 are heading towards a conclusion, there is clear agreement that adaptation to climate change needs to begin now.

To flag off the increasing dangers to mountains and suggest a way forward, three non-profits had jointly released a report or an atlas on World Mountain Day, December 11, titled “Mapping an uncertain future: Atlas of climate change and water in five crucial water basins in the Hindu Kush Himalayas”. The atlas offers a comprehensive, regional understanding of the changing climate and its impact on water resources in five of the major river basins in the region – the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Salween and Mekong.

The report has been released by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), GRID-Arendal, and the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo (CICERO).

Global water resources are facing increasing pressure from climate change and rising consumption. “This problem is especially acute in the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountains, which are home to 210 million people and provide water to over 1.3 billion people, more than the entire continent of Europe,” says the report.

The range that is about 3,500 km forms a part of eight countries, from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. Its people live in one of the most populous, disaster-prone and vulnerable regions in the world. Recent earthquakes in Afghanistan and Nepal are a testimony to its vulnerability.

The atlas offers a comprehensive, regional understanding of the changing climate and its impact on water resources in five of the major river basins in the region – the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Salween and Mekong. It uses maps and infographics to show how the region’s climate is changing now, with severe consequences for populations, both local and downstream.

“This Atlas sheds light on the state and fate of the water resources of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and one of the poorest regions in the world,” says David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. New findings in the atlas include:

  •  Temperatures across the mountainous Hindu Kush-Himalayan region will increase by about 1–2°C (in some places by up to 4–5°C) by 2050
  •  Precipitation will change with the monsoon expected to become longer and more erratic
  •  Extreme rainfall events are becoming less frequent, but more violent and are likely to increase in intensity
  •  Glaciers will continue to suffer substantial ice loss, with the main loss in the Indus basin
  •  Communities living immediately downstream from glaciers are the most vulnerable to glacial changes
  •  Despite overall greater river flow projected, higher variability in river flows and more water in pre-monsoon months are expected, which will lead to a higher incidence of unexpected floods and droughts, greatly impacting the livelihood security and agriculture of river-dependent people
  •  Changes in temperature and precipitation will have serious and far-reaching consequences for climate-dependent sectors, such as agriculture, water resources and health
Vulnerable mountains of India
From Jammu and Kashmir in the north to east-most Arunachal Pradesh, mountain-dwellers across India are battling more climate vagaries than ever before. While residents of villages in Ladakh are battling severe water shortage as a result of changing patterns of glacier melting, Uttarakhand is still recovering from the disastrous floods of 2013. Meanwhile, farmers of mountains in the northeast are struggling to find ways to deal with changing rainfall patterns.

“Despite overall greater river flow projected, higher variability in river flows and more water in pre-monsoon months are expected, which will lead to a higher incidence of unexpected floods and droughts, greatly impacting the livelihood security and agriculture of river-dependent people,” says the new report.

A new study released on the occasion of International Mountain Day by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Mountain Partnership shows disturbing global hunger trends.

The report shows that the number of food-insecure people in the mountainous areas had risen by 30 percent between 2000 and 2012.

“The living conditions of mountain peoples have deteriorated and their vulnerability to hunger has increased. 

Harsh climates and the difficult, often inaccessible terrain, combined with political and social marginality certainly contribute to making mountain peoples particularly vulnerable to food shortages,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in the foreword to the study.

The study—mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity—found that the number of food-insecure people living in mountain regions of developing countries increased to nearly 329 million in 2012 from 253 million in 2000.

This was at a time when the overall population of the world’s mountain people increased only by 16 percent during the period.

It means that one in three mountain people in the developing countries faced hunger and malnutrition as compared to one out of nine people globally, the study says.

Mountains, food security and climate change
According to the report, mountains cover 22 percent of the land surface and are home to around 915 million people, representing 13 percent of the global population. Mountains provide between 60 to 80 percent of the Earth’s fresh water.

The FAO 2015 Mountain Vulnerability Model was formulated under the guidance of experts, the Mountain Partnership Secretariat and the Mountain Partnership members. It provides an estimate of the vulnerability to food insecurity in mountainous areas based on the best technologies and data available.

The report adds that the growing threat of hunger is not the only challenge that mountain people face.

Ninety percent of them (in the developing countries) depend on subsistence agriculture. They have to work in fragile ecosystems that are easily affected by climate change.

“What that means for mountain peoples is an unfortunate injustice: communities with one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world are among the first to bear the brunt of climate change,” Mountain Partnership Secretariat Coordinator Thomas Hofer said.

According to Rob Vos, strategic programme leader in FAO’s economic and social division, “Many subsistence farmers are amongst the poorest. They do need support to improve their livelihoods. In most contexts, that would mean helping them with better access to markets, technologies, as well as infrastructure and means to cope with risks.”

People living in mountain areas are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. This is so because slopes with steep elevations make the soil shallow, poor in micronutrients, limited and difficult to cultivate and unsuitable for mass agricultural production, the report says.

For millions of mountain people, hunger and the threat of hunger are nothing new. The harsh climate and inaccessible terrain, combined with political and social marginality, make mountain people vulnerable to food shortages.      

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Vani Manocha and Deepanwita Niyogi

Vani Manocha and Deepanwita Niyogi

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