About 1.5 to 2 billion people’s lives in Asian Himalayan region depend on river systems that are fed by glaciers
By Muhammad Niaz
The importance of mountains was focused on with the observance of International Mountain Day in 2002 to ensure sustainable mountain development. Understanding the constraints and opportunities of mountains and local communities, the United Nations General Assembly celebrates International Mountain Day each year on December 11 to promote global awareness about the significance of mountains in socio-economic and environmental aspects.
Generally considered as geological barriers, but beyond this layman perception, mountain entities render invaluable services and provide innumerable tangible and intangible benefits for the well-being of humans. Preserving mountain environment deserves special consideration in policy development owing to the role that these entities play in socio-economic and environmental perspective at local, regional, and global level.
Report on Sustainable Mountain Development 2009 maintains that mountain environments are essential to the survival of global ecosystem and their importance can be gauged from the fact that they are the cradle of life, supporting biodiversity, providing food, water, minerals, forest products, energy, and recreation. They also provide means of livelihood to billions of people over the globe associated with the world’s mountains and highlands.
Mountains are not isolated entities. Being susceptible to rapid erosion, landslides, habitat fragmentation, accessibility and connectivity factors, and loss of genetic diversity, mountain ecosystems are rapidly changing. Vulnerability of mountains to environmental impacts, land use pattern, and poverty prevailing among the mountain inhabitants affect their livelihood and mountain ecosystem.
Majority of the forest cover in Pakistan occurs in northern mountains. Forests cover about 3 million hectares, less than 4 percent of the country. Given the country’s total forest resources, about 40 percent of forests occur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while about 15.7 percent of forests occur in Northern Areas.
Almost all mountainous forests of the country are exposed to deforestation and habitat fragmentation in one way or the other. The hilly areas of our country, such as Murree, Galiat, Kaghan, Swat, Malakand, and Chitral, to mention a few, are also experiencing increased human settlements due to population growth.
Since 1970s, mountain ecosystems have been increasingly considered in several research and developmental initiatives. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro served as a driving force in this regard. Adoption of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 has been instrumental in promoting awareness of the importance of mountain ecosystems and communities.
Working as a regional research and development agency since 1983, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) promotes sustainable mountain development in the Hindukush-Himalayan region and its mission is to ensure development of mountain ecosystem and improve the livelihood indicators of mountain populations.
Mountain ecosystems, occupying about one-fifth of the world’s landscape, are found throughout the world from the equator almost to the poles. To meet their needs, about 10 percent of the world’s population depends on mountain resources, while nearly 40 percent inhabits the adjacent watershed areas.
Mountains serve as water towers providing water to billions of people over the globe. About 80 percent of the earth’s fresh water originates in the mountainous regions which not only play a crucial role in the supply of freshwater to humankind, in both mountains and lowlands but also serve as headwaters of all the major rivers of the world. In semi-arid and arid regions, over 90 percent of river flow comes from the mountains.
The stored water in mountain lakes and reservoirs serves as a potential source for generating hydro-power besides serving as recharge of aquifers. Himalayan glaciers regulate water supply to the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers benefiting hundreds of millions of people in the region. According to the WWF reports, these glaciers are experiencing retreat at the rate of about 10-15m each year, owing to the intensifying global warming scenario.
Reports indicate that about 1.5 to 2 billion people in Asian Himalayan region depend on river systems that are fed by glaciers. If the supply of water from highland glaciers is affected, serious socio-economic repercussions are inevitable and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for fighting poverty and improving access to clean water will be jeopardised.
The Hindukush, Karakoram, and Himalaya mountain ranges, occupying land mass in six countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan) possess the world’s third largest snow/ice mass after the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. These frozen water towers are the prime source of ground water recharge in the region that provides about 70 percent of freshwater to the people downstream in South Asia, Central Asia and China.
Being the centers of biological diversity, mountain plants and animals survive under the environmental conditions of their habitat because of their adaptability. Mountains support most important and significant mountain biota in the form of floral and faunal diversity and endemism as the lowland biodiversity is nearly depleted. Being a slow-growing conifer, the Himalayan Yew is currently listed as an endangered plant by the WWF. The threatened fauna of highlands including Snow leopard, Giant flying squirrel, and Tragopan pheasant besides other are some of the important rare species for whom mountains serve as natural sanctuaries.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tropical mountain forests have experienced annual population growth and deforestation. Over the globe only 8 per cent of all mountains are protected. Mountains in adjacent countries serve as corridors for faunal movement and migration across borders.
In the Hindukush-Himalayan region mountains’ sensitivity to all climatic changes compounds threats of avalanches, landslides, and floods and these often results in disasters jeopardising socio-economic progress of a country and affecting hilly communities. According to reports about half of the world’s population is affected in various ways by mountain ecology and the degradation of watershed areas.
According to an international conference on mountains as early indicators of climate change last year ascertains that melting of glaciers provides the most obvious evidence of global warming. All over the world, indigenous people are confronted with unprecedented climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment has pointed out that the changing earth’s climate will affect ecosystems, communities, and cultures that require large-scale initiative and positive global action. Reports highlight that since the end of the 19th century the total surface area of glaciers worldwide has decreased by 50 percent.
Mountain tourism is one of the important sources that contribute to development of local economy and improving livelihood of mountain people. Tourism markets also place great demands on fragile mountain ecosystems.
The government of Pakistan had implemented a 5-year Mountains Areas Conservancy Project to safeguard mountains and their environment from degradation with active participation of local people. Its second phase started as Programme for Mountain Areas Conservation to build on previous initiatives. However, given the magnitude of the local people inhabiting highlands, such initiatives are inadequate to halt degradation of mountain environment.
Encroachment of local people into the wilderness often results in human-wildlife conflict. Unplanned sprawling of human settlements and increase in human population and over exploitation of natural resources in mountain areas pose serious problems of ecological deterioration in these watershed areas. To meet their needs, mountain people carry cultivation of marginal lands on hillsides in the form of terraced fields which accelerate soil erosion while many areas experience excessive livestock grazing, deforestation, and loss of biomass cover.
There is a need to bring in more conservation-oriented projects in the mountainous areas of the country and promote national policies that would provide incentives to local people for the use and transfer of environment-friendly technologies and farming and conservation practices. Proper management of mountain resources and socio-economic development of the people deserves immediate action by strengthening partnership and mutual collaboration at national and international level.