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Mountain agendas for a Himalayan nation

Most of Nepal’s land is located in high mountains and is facing a critical challenge as its glaciers rapidly retreat, endangering freshwater resources

Mountain agendas for a Himalayan nation

Mountains are an important source of water, energy, biological diversity, key resources such as minerals, forests, agriculture, and recreation. Mountain environments represent major ecosystems essential to the global ecosystem’s survival. About 10 percent of the world’s population depends directly on mountain resources, and a much larger percentage draws on mountain resources, especially water. However, with rapid urbanization and global warming, many mountain areas around the world are experiencing environmental degradation.

As increasing mountain degradation continues due to climate change impacts, the mountain agenda for Himalayan nations like Nepal needs to be discussed and addressed in a sustainable way. The key agendas encompass sustainable development, environmental conservation, climate resilience, cultural preservation and international cooperation. It should prioritize protecting mountain ecosystems, managing water resources, reducing disaster risks, preserving indigenous cultures, promoting sustainable tourism, diversifying livelihoods, and fostering collaboration among neighboring countries and international partners. These efforts should aim to ensure the well-being of mountain communities and the sustainability of mountain ecosystems in the face of growing challenges posed by climate change and environmental degradation.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 declared “Program of Action for Sustainable Development” as ‘Agenda 21’, which is a landmark document in mountain sustainability. This comprehensive action plan, adopted by 178 governments, outlines strategies and measures to foster sustainable development globally in the 21st century. Rooted in the principles of integration, equity, and collective responsibility, Agenda 21 emphasizes the urgent need for international cooperation to address interconnected social, economic, and environmental challenges. Chapter 13 of this report focuses on managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development and addresses the unique challenges faced by mountain regions worldwide, emphasizing their significance as key ecosystems and their vulnerability to environmental degradation, climate change, and unsustainable development practices. It calls for urgent action to promote the sustainable management and conservation of mountain ecosystems, recognizing their crucial role in providing essential ecosystem services, supporting biodiversity, and sustaining livelihoods for millions of people.

The United Nations declared 2022 as the International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development to raise awareness about the importance of mountains and their ecosystems whereas the Second Committee of the 77th UN General Assembly unanimously approved Tajikistan’s proposal to designate 2025 as the International Year of Glaciers’ Preservation and to mark March 21 as World Day of Glaciers, beginning in 2025. This initiative underscores glaciers’ crucial role in the hydrological cycle and the severe repercussions of their rapid melting on climate, ecosystems, human health, and sustainable development. Originating from Tajikistan's President at the Water and Climate Leaders’ Call for Action in March 2021, it was subsequently included in the Water and Climate Leaders Action Plan during the Dushanbe meeting in June 2022. All UN Member States, entities, international organizations, civil society and stakeholders are encouraged to participate. UNESCO and WMO, in collaboration with governments and relevant entities, are tasked with organizing activities, including establishing a global cryosphere information system. The declaration also highlights the collaborative efforts of global leaders in integrating the water and climate agenda, acknowledging their invaluable contributions.

In response to the UN Declaration of the International Year of Glacier Preservation, the Cryospheric Society of Nepal-CSN, a group of glaciologists, has initiated the celebration of World Glacier Day in collaboration with Kathmandu University and other relevant stakeholders to raise awareness of climate change and glaciers in Nepal. On March 21, it was celebrated as a warm-up celebration by organizing a one-day symposium on cryosphere, where relevant stakeholders shared their activities and plans for cryosphere monitoring. It has helped to collaborate among like-minded institutions within Nepal and for international collaboration.

In addition, mountains were included in the global stocktake documents of the COP28 held in UAE. The global stocktake emphasizes the need for action, urging Parties and encouraging non-party stakeholders to heighten ambition and strengthen adaptation efforts to mitigate climate impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. It advocates for accelerating ecosystem-based adaptation and nature-based solutions, emphasizing the management, enhancement, restoration and conservation of various ecosystems, including the protection of mountains.

In the last 30 years, the recognition of mountains has become a vital component of the global environment; however, mountain ecosystems characterized by their fragile geology, rugged topography, rich biodiversity and unique ecological features are susceptible to environmental disturbances and are experiencing rapid changes due to human activities and global warming. Most of Nepal’s land is located in high mountains and is facing a critical challenge as its glaciers rapidly retreat, endangering freshwater resources. This trend, consistent with global patterns, threatens water security and exacerbates scarcity issues. Studies project significant glacier volume reductions by 2050. A recent report highlights a 65 percent increase in glacier mass loss in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region between 2000 and 2019, alongside a negative trend in snow cover extent, indicating seasonal shifts. Compounding the problem, thawing permafrost destabilizes mountainsides and accelerates the formation of hazardous glacial lakes.

Over the past decade, there has been a notable increase in the number of potentially hazardous glacial lakes, with approximately 47 identified as posing potential risks. However, to accurately assess and address these risks, ongoing scientific research and monitoring are essential. The dynamic nature of glacial lakes, influenced by climate change and glacial melt rates, underscores the need for regular updates to these datasets. As the number and volume of glacial lakes continue to fluctuate each year, alongside changing triggering factors, updated information is crucial for effective risk reduction strategies.

The looming threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) underscores an urgent need for proactive risk reduction measures. Downstream communities and vital infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to the devastating impacts of these floods. By integrating scientific research findings into risk assessment frameworks, policymakers can develop targeted strategies to mitigate the risks posed by glacial lakes. This approach involves leveraging advanced monitoring technologies and predictive modeling to anticipate potential hazards and implement timely interventions. Ultimately, prioritizing scientific research and risk reduction efforts is essential for enhancing resilience to GLOFs and safeguarding vulnerable communities and infrastructure downstream of glacial lakes.

Urgent action necessitates collaborative efforts to manage not only risks related to glacial lakes but all the issues, including those related to water resources, infrastructure sustainability, ecosystem, biodiversity, and mountain tourism, to enhance disaster preparedness and promote sustainable development practices. Such measures are vital for safeguarding vulnerable populations and mitigating the impacts that the mountain and its people are facing. It is essential to promote sustainable mountain development, enhance scientific research and monitoring, strengthen institutional capacities, technology transfer, promote community participation, and foster international cooperation. It emphasizes the importance of adopting holistic strategies considering the interconnectedness of mountain regions' social, economic and environmental factors. The country needs to maintain transparency in financing through climate finance and loss and damage mechanisms with adequate policies and their implementation for climate-resilient mountains.