Mountains are the world’s “water towers,” providing 60-80% of all freshwater resources for our planet. At least half of the world’s population depends on mountain ecosystem services to survive – not only water, but also food and clean energy.
However, all available records indicate that glaciers in mountain ranges around the world are retreating and disappearing due to climate change. At least 600 glaciers have disappeared completely over past decades, affecting water supplies relied on by billions living downstream. For example, in Pakistan, water originating from the Hindu Kush Himalayas provides 80% of irrigation for the Indus Basin, where food is grown for 180 million people.
Major cities such as Rio de Janeiro, New York, Nairobi and Tokyo rely almost exclusively on freshwater from mountains.
On the other hand, mountains attract around 20% of global tourism, host nearly one-quarter of all terrestrial biodiversity, and are home to many of the foods that come to our table, such as rice, potatoes, tomatoes and barley.
Yet, they are home to some of the poorest and hungriest people in the world.
Of the nearly 1 billion people living in mountain areas globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that nearly 329 million – one in every three mountain people – in developing countries is vulnerable to food insecurity, with an increase of 30% over 12 years.
The Mountain Partnership, a United Nations alliance dedicated to improving the lives of mountain peoples and protecting mountain environments, has issued a warning to the international community: what is happening upstream due to climate change will have disastrous impacts downstream.
Living far away from centres of power and decision-making, mountain peoples, especially in developing countries, are often marginalized in political, social and economic terms. Mountain communities lack access to basic infrastructure, education, credit and markets – and all of these hinder their development.
While men are often forced to migrate, the women who remain have heavier workloads to carry, in addition to taking care of the children and the elderly. At a community level, cultural values and ancient traditions are lost.
Mountains are under pressure, and so are mountain communities.
Climate change is triggering disasters: avalanches, mud and rock slides are tumbling downstream, stripping bare forests, flooding communities and populations. Infectious diseases such as malaria will spread at higher altitudes in the tropics as a result of rising temperatures and climate change, affecting millions of people living in the mountains.
Mountain communities, however, have a wealth of knowledge and strategies accumulated over generations on how to adapt to climate variability. But they cannot do it alone. They need the awareness and support of the rest of the world to help them adapt and thrive.
Time is running out, and we must act together: public opinion must put pressure on governments to take action now, to protect our mountains and protect our future. We need specific investments, pro-mountain policies, and incentives so that mountain peoples will not migrate elsewhere. We need to raise the flag for all those without a voice.