Much has been written about sustainable development in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, especially since the United Nations declared the International Year of Mountains in 2002. On the eve of International Mountain Day 2012 and in the wake of the Rio+20 meeting this year (the fifth global conference on sustainable development), it is pertinent to rethink strategies for sustainable mountain development in the region to deal with new challenges and emerging trends.
Our region is extremely diverse in its terrain, climate, cultures, and ethnic groups. It is the source of Asia’s ten major river systems and home to four of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. The mountains of the region provide numerous goods and services including water, forest products, minerals, and energy, which are vital to sustainable development and economic growth both within the region and downstream. Yet poverty, unsustainable land-use practices, and the rapid degradation of ecosystems continue to plague the region. Persistent challenges include difficulties of access, which lead to the isolation and marginalization of mountain communities, and fragile environments, which are becoming increasingly vulnerable in the face of climate change. These challenges can only be tackled through inclusive and equitable economic growth that raises standards of living while ensuring that natural resources are managed in a sustainable way.
The countries of the Himalayas need to develop and adopt mountain-specific policies and technologies to enhance the quality of life in the region. National policies must support the reduction of mountain poverty coupled with the conservation of mountain ecosystems and biodiversity; they should provide for compensation to mountain people for conserving their ecosystems to ensure the flow of goods and services from them. Concepts such as environmentally friendly road construction, micro-hydropower, and community forestry have been around for decades, and they work—but they are still waiting to be adopted on a larger scale.
PROMOTION OF GREEN ECONOMY
‘Green economy’ is an important tool for eradicating poverty and achieving sustainable development. The rich natural capital and relatively intact ecosystems of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region have tremendous potential to sustain the people living within the region as well as to provide goods and services to many more living downstream. The countries of the region need to develop appropriate policies to promote a green economy for a sustainable future. The Government of India has set an example through its Green India Mission, which envisages green industries, public-private partnerships, and the participatory management of ecosystems.
PAYMENT FOR ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
Globally, there is growing recognition of the need to measure the economic value of services provided by ecosystems and to provide compensation to local communities for maintaining ecosystem integrity. Many mountain communities in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region live in harmony with nature and have little negative impact on ecosystem stability and functioning. Downstream populations share the benefits flowing from mountain ecosystems but have limited awareness of the role of mountain people in sustaining them and rarely contribute to their upkeep. Several countries in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region have recognized the importance of valuing and paying for ecosystem services and biodiversity in recent years. This awareness needs to be translated into action and mainstreamed into development planning.
DEALING WITH VULNERABILITIES
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, which is likely to affect water availability, biodiversity, resource use patterns, and even peace. The countries of the region need to adopt policies to help reduce people’s vulnerability to climate change, strengthen their resilience, and enhance their capacity to adapt. Nepal has successfully demonstrated that funding for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) can be channelled to community-based efforts, enhancing the resilience of communities and converting risks into opportunities. Other countries need to replicate such innovations. Strategies for adaptation should include risk assessment and preparedness, hazard mapping, reduction of atmospheric pollution from burning woodfuels (black carbon), holistic approaches to watershed management, expanded use of local technologies for water harvesting, and the development of marketable niche products from mountain natural resources.
Communities in the Himalayas have been eking out a living for centuries, largely from agriculture and pastoralism and to some extent from hunting and gathering. With the rapid rate of globalization and the increasingly market-based world economy, rural poverty has increased in the mountains, prompting high levels of outmigration. Rural communities often hesitate to opt for new and enterprise-based livelihoods as they often cannot afford to take the risk and lack access to needed information, technology, and markets. Mountain people could profit more from niche products and services such as medicinal and aromatic plants, other non-timber forest products, high-value organic food, and mountain tourism; this requires the development and strengthening of mountain-specific value chains for these products and services—that is, identifying ways for mountain people to benefit from the various stages along the chain of production, for example from harvesting to processing to packaging to marketing. Development models must also give priority to making rural life attractive to youth and engaging them in farming activities.
Problems related to climate change, atmospheric pollution, and the protection of the common heritage of the mountains—plants, animals, water, forests, and even cultures—are more than local or national issues; they extend across boundaries and are affected by action taken in neighboring locations. Therefore the countries of the region must cooperate across borders. Regional cooperation requires exchange of knowledge, information, and experience and overcoming mistrust and political sensitivities.
In this respect, organizations like ICIMOD—an inter-governmental knowledge sharing organization mandated to provide technical support and to work closely with conservation and development agencies in the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region—have an important role. Good governance, democracy, and gender-sensitive development planning, both national and regional, are essential for sustainable development in the region. We believe that the best way to secure our common future is to bring the policy planners of the Himalayan countries together to formulate long term strategies that recognize the needs for sustaining mountain ecosystem services. Unless this is achieved, it will be extremely difficult to achieve the sustainable development goals that were endorsed by as many as 188 countries at Rio+20.
Rawat is the Deputy Programme Manager, Environmental Change and Ecosystem Services Programme, and
Sharma is the Director of Programme Operations at ICIMOD