“We have not respected the fragility of the Himalaya”

What is happening in Pakistan this week is a warning sign of things to come for the entire Himalayan region due to the climate crisis

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) marks its 40th anniversary this year. Nepali Times spoke to its Director General, Pema Gyamtsho from Bhutan about the implications of the climate crisis for the Himalayan region, especially in light of floods  in Pakistan, and the need for crossborder links to reduce risk.

Nepali Times: ICIMOD will soon be marking its 40th anniversary, and at the same time many problems of the Himalayan region have got worse. How has ICIMOD’s role evolved over these last four decades?

Dr Pema Gyamtsho: Those days, 40 years ago, or in the 80s, the narrative used to be that the Himalaya is undergoing rapid deforestation, massive land erosion and landslides. These were mainly attributed to unsustainable agricultural practices, over-grazing and so on. Scientists used to describe the mountain areas as being inaccessible, fragile, marginal and vulnerable.

Now, 40 years down the road, I am still wondering whether we have addressed the fragility. In many ways, we have accelerated the damage through haphazard infrastructure.

Landslides are occurring mainly due to improper planning and execution. In fact, we have not respected the fragility of the mountains.

We have improved accessibility, there is now road access to every remote corner of this region. But has it improved the economic situation of these communities living there? Perhaps yes, in terms of availability of goods and services, we may have better education and health services, or access to markets, but the cultural wealth has gone down. There are pluses and minuses.

Read also: “Time to walk the talk on climate change in the Himalaya”, Nepali Times

Now, on top of that vulnerability, we have the climate emergency.

Yes, climate change has come into the picture. And this is something that every one of us has to take very seriously. It’s not something that is going to happen after 50 or 100 years. It is happening now. And that is why ICIMOD has recognised the urgency. The most important message from our Hindu-Kush Himalayan Assessment Report, 2019 is that we need to take urgent action, and six areas were identified. We have to act as a region because most of the issues, most of the impact of climate change are trans-boundary in nature. While countries on their own can do a lot, we can do much more together. That is why the call to action includes the need for countries in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region to work together.

You mentioned ICIMOD's landmark 2019 report. It looked at how the climate emergency was affecting the mountains. But things we thought would happen in 2040 are happening now. Does this mean that we now need an updated assessment that actually makes it even more urgent?

I am sure you appreciate the fact that the process is very dynamic. It can change from year to year. But in order to give a clearer picture of the trends, we need to also have longer duration assessments.

The 2019 assessment gave a good picture of the situation as of 2019. But now, we also see that the climate change-induced disaster is increasing both in terms of frequency and intensity, and when least expected. Like Pakistan going through this massive catastrophe with one-third of the country affected by flood. These things keep on happening. In February, there were three, four days of unseasonal snowfall which also caused a lot of damage. Such weather extremes are now happeneing more often. Maybe two, three years down the line, we have to do another assessment. Because then we can get a better picture of how things are going and in which direction.

Read also: Climate change is a disaster in the Nepal Himalaya, Sonam Choekyi Lama

Does that mean that ICIMOD’s area of focus is also going to change, to address this accelerating crisis?

Scientific research is important, and monitoring the trends are important, but these things are happening now right in front of our eyes. We don’t need to go through literature reviews, or conduct peer-reviewed research to find out whether disasters are happening or not.

ICIMOD has recognised this urgency, and we have come up with a new strategy that will take us from 2023 to 2030 in response to the current worsening trends.

We have also modified our vision to align with this present situation, so as to work towards a greener, more climate-resilient and inclusive Hindu-Kush Himalaya. We have brought climate change to the fore, and our focus is going to be in addressing the impact of the climate crisis by encouraging invesment in the mountains.

Will you also look at the danger posed to infrastrucutre by the melting glaciers? We’ve seen this last year in Nepal with Melamchi, Pakistan this week is a glaring example, your own country Bhutan has also suffered. Do we now have to totally redesign infrastructure?

Ideally that would be what would be required, because if knowing the dangers and risks, we keep on building infrastructure, hydropower plants, regardless of the imminent threats from glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) or other such disasters, then we are asking for trouble. And we know that disaster will strike sooner or later.

That is why we have to rethink investment in infrastrucutre. For example, instead of investing in mega hydropower plants, we should go for mini and micro hydro. It is safer, more sustainable, and manageable. We also have to invest in early warning and disaster preparedness.

Read also: Nepal needs to get its climate act together, Editorial

ICIMOD seems to be ideally placed to address trans-boundary risks. And GLOFs have a trans-boundary nature. So how can your organisation play a role in bringing these countries together, especially for early flood warning systems?

We are working on it. It not easy but there is no way out than to bring the countries together to recognise the trans-boundary nature of the issues of climate change that we are facing.

As you mentioned, rivers are trans-boundary, even air pollution is trans-boundary.

The advantage of ICIMOD is its status as a politically neutral organisation. So, we are able to bring scientists from our member countries to sit at the same table and discuss climate change impact, about trans-boundary disasters.

We have various ongoing dialogues: the Upper Indus Basin dialogue, where we bring scientists from China, India and Pakistan together to discuss issues related to rivers there. The Kosi River Basin Hub brings scientists from India, China and Nepal together.

Things are happening, but it is a process and now we need to put more focus on building this trans-boundary cooperation. That has always been our mandate and focus, but I think now, we need to fast forward these initiaitves.

Read also: UN climate report declares planetary emergency, Sonia Awale

40 years ago, the founders of ICIMOD recognised the importance of the Himalayan Hindu-Kush region. Now there are new challenges of the climate crisis. Can you explain to us why you think that protecting the Himalaya is important?

The Hindu-Kush Himalaya, as a region is not just an asset for us living in the mountains. It is a global asset. Our estimate is that around 2 billion people depend on the ecosystem services that Hindu Kush Himalayan region provides.

I like to compare the Himalaya to a water bank. Its reserves are fast depleting due to the rapid melting of glaciers. Aside from water, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region is also a treasure trove of biodiversity hotspots and cultural diversity.

And given its importance to the planet, if we do not protect the Himalaya, the impact is not going to be just felt within the region and within each country, but globally. If that happens where would the people move from here? They will have to find some place. And that is going to have global implications.

Read also: Nepal’s citizen scientists track climate change, Erica Wu

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