Jan 25, 2012
Freshwater from mountain systems is critical to maintain agricultural biodiversity, writes David Molden, Director General, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Mountains are the earth’s natural freshwater reservoirs. They store an immense amount of water and gradually release it to support livelihoods and natural and agro-ecosystems downstream. More than half of humanity relies on freshwater from mountains to grow food, produce electricity, sustain biological diversity, and provide drinking water.
Water towers of Asia
Glaciers, ice fields, and snow packs provide immense water storage facilities. The Hindu Kush Himalayas are the 'water towers' of Asia and are vital to 1.3 billion people living in ten major river basins. They are the major source of water – both surface and groundwater – in the dry season, and as such are critical for hydropower and food security.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain systems play a critical role in maintaining agricultural biodiversity. They help regulate micro-climate and the all-important monsoon precipitation. Many of the rivers originating in the Hindu Kush Himalayas support major bread-basket areas of regional and global significance such as, the basins of the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers.
Rivers originating in the Himalayas contribute to groundwater storage, and during the dry season they are the main source of surface water, in the fertile plains of the Ganges river basin, for example. More than one-third of the arable land in the Hindu Kush Himalayan countries (excluding Bhutan and Myanmar) is irrigated mainly by water from rivers originating in these mountains. Adverse changes to this vital source of water would threaten food security at country, regional and global scales.
Fragile and unique
Mountains are fragile ecosystems and highly vulnerable to climate change, impacts of globalisation, and environmental problems such as atmospheric pollution and black carbon. While current changes create opportunities for mountain people for livelihood diversification, for example, they also create pressures that can exacerbate poverty, food insecurity, and health risks.
Much of the negative pressure on mountain communities and ecosystems comes from problems originating outside mountain regions. As global inaction on carbon emissions causes temperatures to rise – and they are rising faster at higher elevations – snow and ice melt away, diminishing the capacity of natural water storage systems.
The global community must look to mountains to resolve issues of energy, water, and food security. To date, the conservation efforts of mountain people remain ignored and unrewarded, yet we all benefit. We need to strengthen existing institutional mechanisms, and to establish new ones, to provide incentives for ensuring mountain ecosystem services, including surface and groundwater provision, water storage, carbon storage by mountain forests, and other services necessary for energy, food security, and sustainable livelihoods.
Whether or not there will be enough food and energy for all will depend in large part on what happens in the mountains. Mountains face special problems because of their remoteness, unique ecosystems, and fragility. Consequently mountains need greater recognition in global negotiations.