Securing the Third Pole
An Arctic Council-like Himalayan body brewing in India’s backyard
On February 4, 2019, an air of anxiety enveloped South Asia and China after the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an inter-governmental regional body released the first-ever assessment report on the impact of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.
Part of the great Himalayan range, the HKH region is shared by eight countries, including India and China. The findings were scary, and their possible impact on the lives of nearly 2 billion people, directly and indirectly, has emerged as a tough development challenge in a time of faster global warming and consequent climate change.
But the over 650-page report now needs a buying-in by the eight countries, in terms of taking up development policies to not only mitigate but also adapt the impact of climate change on one of the world's most fragile ecosystems.
The HKH region — part of the Third Pole due to its largest permanent snow cover after the North and South Poles — sustains the livelihoods of 240 million people living in the mountains and hills. It also houses the origin of 10 river basins that include the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. Some 1.5 billion people depend on these basins for sustenance.
This is the context that has triggered ICIMOD, already working along with the governments of the eight countries, to start the formation of an inter-governmental body focused on the HKH region. "We know our limitations of working with various sovereign governments. The only way to face this gigantic task of saving the ecosystem and the source of sustenance of billions of people is to create a specialised institutional mechanism owned by all the countries," says a senior official of ICIMOD.
Here sprout the first shoots of an Arctic Council-like body for this region. The Arctic Council is also an inter-governmental forum of the eight Arctic governments including the US and Canada and also includes the indigenous people of the North Pole. It deals with development and protection of the fragile ecosystem that is fast melting due to global warming.
In the last four years when ICIMOD's assessment report was under process, the idea of forming a similar council for this region was taking shape. There have been several consistent iterations between both the bodies to exchange knowledge and experience on working in a fragile ecosystem as well as among governments.
"During the past four years, ICIMOD worked very closely with the Arctic Council. The head of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) attended the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP, which prepared the first assessment report) workshops during framing and provided very good experience-sharing of the Arctic Council to our science groups and policymakers," says Eklabya Sharma, the deputy director general of ICIMOD.
ICIMOD has been facilitating the officials of governments in the HKH area to attend the Arctic Frontiers Annual Conference in Tromso, Norway. "By the way, HIMAP actually was approved as a concept after the ICIMOD board members from eight countries attended the HKH Session within the framework of the "Arctic Circle" under the leadership of the then President of Iceland at Reykjavik in October 2012," says Sharma.
With the release of the report, the dissemination process will basically be used to build up a case for institutionalising a mechanism similar to the Arctic Council. In 2019, this report will be widely disseminated and debated among the policymakers of the eight countries for drafting future mitigation and adaptation plans.
This process will build up to a ministerial meeting in March 2020. This is the high-level summit where ICIMOD is aiming to achieve a promise from all governments on the proposed institution.
"In 2019, we will prepare the constituency of policymakers for commitment during the March 2020 Summit. We also plan key government official exposure and experience sharing with the Alpine Convention and Arctic Council meetings in 2019," says Sharma. "One of the outcomes of the summit will be the presentation and endorsement of an institutional mechanism the form and contours of which, we don't know for now – may be the HKH Council," he adds.
(The author is Managing Editor of Down to Earth magazine. The views expressed are strictly personal)