Mountains under pressure: climate change, hunger and migration

  • By Hiroto Mitsugi, FAO
  • 11/12/2017

A mountain guide shows his clients the landscape at the Konkordia Hut over the Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland, August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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Is there anything more solid, steadfast, unmovable than a mountain? Think of Everest in the Himalayas, North America’s Mount Denali, Europe’s Matterhorn: eternal monuments to beauty and an ecosystem's bounty.

Yet, cracks are appearing. Mountains are showing vulnerability. Climate change triggers highlands disasters: avalanches, mud and rock slides lacerate mountain faces,  stripping bare forests, devastating communities and populations. Water supplies and food security are threatened by global changes in the high places and below.

All of us are experiencing the impact of climate change on mountains; all of us have a stake in acting now before irreversible damage is done.

Millennia-old mountain glaciers are melting under rising global temperatures, affecting fresh water relied on by billions living downstream. Some 60 percent to 80 percent of the world’s fresh water spills down from mountains, which demonstrates how vulnerable the world’s water supplies — and consequently, food security — are to changes in the high places. Cities such as Rio de Janeiro, New York, Nairobi and Tokyo are completely dependent on fresh water from mountains.

Images of receding glaciers, landslides and avalanches pack a visual punch, a reminder that we cannot take for granted the world’s mountains. For these are crucial not only to the 13 percent of the world’s population – almost one billion people -- who call the mountain regions home; but as well to the fragile highlands ecosystems that cradle one-third of all plant species and host half of global biodiversity hot-spots.

Loss of runoff from disappearing glaciers means highlands farmers, mostly smallholders, will become completely dependent on rainfall, leaving rural areas without a steady source of fresh water. Some 329 million mountain people — more than one in three — already face food insecurity and climate change makes the situation increasingly grim.

A direct consequence of this are the waves of migration away from highland communities, most often to overcrowded urban areas below. Young people in particular are forced from their homes to search for work. This drain will cause an inestimable loss in provision of ecosystem services and preservation of cultural and agrobiodiversity.

How can the world respond to these far-reaching threats and protect mountain environments which are so crucial to humankind? First, we can educate ourselves about the impact of climate change, hunger and migration. International Mountain Day on 11 December is a great opportunity to support sustainable mountain development, ensuring it is integrated into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Targeted investments and appropriate policies can build resilience in mountain communities, boost livelihoods, and reverse trends in migration from mountain areas. Those are themes of the 2017 Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership — a UN voluntary alliance dedicated to improving the lives of mountain peoples and protecting mountain environments worldwide. More than 300 governments, intergovernmental organizations, civil society groups, NGOs and the private sector are members.

As the three-day Global Meeting opens on International Mountain Day at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' headquarters in Rome, a Framework for Action tops the agenda. It aims to ensure that mountain areas are fully integrated into the 2030 Agenda and in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The Framework will support concrete measures and policies to strengthen the resilience of mountain people and environments in the face of climate change, and will be endorsed by some 60 governments and more than 200 civil society organizations.

The world is facing enormous challenges, including threats to water and food security, wrought by climate change. Mountains are one of the ecosystems most affected, but they are also key to overcoming the challenges; hence, their sustainable development must be made a global priority. The time to act is now.

Hiroto Mitsugi is the Assistant Director-General at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

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