Pema Gyamtsho, the director general of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, is one of the world’s leading experts on protection of the fragile ecology of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region.

International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a United Nations-supported inter-governmental organisation, has eight regional member countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. A prominent Bhutanese politician, he was his country’s first minister of agriculture and forest. He has a PhD from the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Pema Gyamtsho, the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

I interacted with him at a virtual international conference on “Protection of the Himalayan Ecology”, organised by China’s ministry of foreign affairs on February 2. Just five days later, Uttarakhand witnessed a natural disaster in the form of a massive Himalayan glacier burst.

I interviewed him on this tragedy, the grave threats that global warming and the climate crisis have posed to the region, and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s vision and mission.

Excerpts from the interview:

The calamity caused by the glacial burst in Uttarakhand on February 7 has once again turned the spotlight on the vulnerability of the Himalayan region. Has the international centre reached out to its network partners in India? And can you share your initial assessment of the likely causes of this event?
The recent flooding tragedy in Uttarakhand, India, is a tragic reminder of the challenges and dangers we face from climate change. I was personally very impacted as I saw those devasting images on the news and listened to the initial theories that the tragedy was caused by a glacial lake outburst flood.

International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development scientists are currently working with partners in India to establish the causes and the extent of the destruction. We have also reached out to NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and UN-Spider who both have extensive remote sensing imagery and data that could potentially help in the investigation.

While still seeking clarity on the series of causal links, what we can say about what happened is that mountain environments hold vast potential for these sorts of devastating incidents. It is therefore so fundamentally important to carefully plan development in these areas and to ensure extensive monitoring of glacial lakes, river flow and weather.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development describes the Hindu Kush Himalayas as “the Third Pole” – after the North and South Poles – and intends to secure a better future for it. Can you elaborate on this vision?
Personally, as someone from the region and from the mountains, I carry with me a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountains, to protecting the “pulse of the planet”.

I see the mountains as the fountains of life. Being the source of the headwaters of 10 major rivers, they provide a livelihood for millions of people living both within and beyond the region. I am passionate about nature and people.

In a nutshell, our strategy is to leverage the core competencies we have developed internally in scientific areas related to livelihoods, water and air, ecosystem services and geospatial technologies. In our on-the-ground programmes, we work with partners across river basins and transboundary landscapes to promote adaptation and resilience building, to understand and mitigate problems associated with the atmosphere, to nurture and build mountain environment information systems and to build capacity for sustainable mountain development through mountain knowledge and action networks.

In pursuit of our mission, new technologies are essential, and so is the participation of people at the grassroots whose traditional knowledge and wisdom we also seek to share and promote. It is exciting work amplifying mountain voices in global fora, but also listening to those voices through local-level community-based pilot interventions, participatory research projects and capacity building events.

Photo Credit: ICIMOD

At the recent international conference on the protection of the Himalayan ecology organised by China’s ministry of foreign affairs, you said that “no single nation can tackle the problems faced by the Hindu Kush Himalayas”. What specific ideas and suggestions do you have to change this reality?
I am deeply encouraged by the general agreement on the need for regional and transboundary cooperation among our regional member countries.

While it may appear that the cooperation is limited if seen through a political sense, there are many areas where the Hindu Kush Himalaya countries are actively working together in generating data and information, scientific research, exchange of knowledge and innovations and capacity building. For example, the Upper Indus Basin Network brings together Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan to share common concerns, engage in joint research and discuss adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures.

Similarly, the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative involves China, India and Nepal to engage in collaboration ranging from conservation of culture and biodiversity to promoting resilient livelihood options like tourism and other mountain niche enterprises like herbal products. The eight Hindu Kush Himalaya countries have also unanimously agreed to a long-term framework for collaboration in tackling climate change impacts and meeting the other Sustainable Development Goals related to mountains through the signing of a Ministerial Declaration last October.

We are taking forward this framework, which is described as the Hindu Kush Himalaya Call to Action and which provides an agreed set of priorities for each of the eight individual Hindu Kush Himalaya countries and for the region as a whole.

The snow-covered Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Joel Saget/AFP

Can you present a macro picture of the ecological threats faced by Hindu Kush Himalayas, with some specific micro examples? To what extent are these threats due to global warming and the resultant climate crisis?
Moving from the global scale to the local scale on issues like biodiversity and ecosystems services, we can first look at the globally significant report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

In its disturbing global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystems services, there is clear and compelling evidence that nature’s decline is unprecedented and that extinction rates are accelerating. Since the Hindu Kush Himalaya region itself holds four global biodiversity hotspots, and the ecosystems services emanating from this region benefit more than 35% of the planet’s population, the loss of biodiversity and the environmental damage across water bodies, air and land place ecosystems and the people who depend on them in jeopardy.

If we take an iconic species for the Hindu Kush Himalaya, the yak, we have documented that development, climate change, and geopolitics have affected pastoral practices by isolating herders and fragmenting traditional pastures. As a result, the productivity of yak and yak populations are declining, and local cultures with strong ties to yak herding are vanishing.

With limited market opportunities, the younger generation has little interest in pursuing a way of life that involves such hardship. Let us take another example, the caterpillar fungus [Ophiocordyceps sinensis], locally known as yartsa gunbu, a rare fungus of immense value that grows in the high meadows on the fringe of the snowline. As temperatures become warmer, the habitat for this fungus is shrinking and will eventually lead to its extinction.

In India, the Koshi River is described by many as the “sorrow of Bihar” and the Brahmaputra River as the “sorrow of Assam” because of the occurrence of annual floods. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has recently talked about making Assam “flood-free”. What is needed to achieve this objective?

It would indeed be wonderful if Assam could become flood-free and I know that much has been done in this regard.

To continue progress towards that goal, it would be necessary to take some more practical steps such as more early warning systems for floods combined with disaster preparedness, risk reduction and response mechanisms along the banks of the rivers. We have some wonderful examples of community-based early warning systems having worked in nine tributaries of the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Koshi rivers in Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

More community-based early warning systems could bring together upstream and downstream countries to collaborate on data and information generation and exchange, communication systems and resource sharing.

The small kingdom of Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. Your country’s constitution mandates that a minimum of 60% of its land must be under forest cover at all times. What factors have contributed to this astonishing ecological awareness and commitment in Bhutan?
Bhutan is a fully mountainous country and the link between soil erosion, landslides, biodiversity and forests was recognised long before planned development started.

“Living in harmony with nature” is one of the core ethos of Buddhism and provided the inspiration for our ecological awareness and policy development. Our Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuk placed environmental protection as one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness and hence gave the impetus to include the requirement to maintain 60% of our land under forest cover at all times in our constitution.

Can you cite some success stories of ecological preservation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region?
Thankfully, there are so many success stories and Nepal provides a great example through its

The country’s topography is complex as is the story of what has happened over time with forests and other wooded land, which have reached a total of 44.74%. With protected areas and other efforts, there has been a success in protecting and reforesting areas, especially in the mid-hills and mountains.

Community forest user groups are definitely a part of that story and they have been supported by the largest civil society organisation in Nepal, called the Federation of Community Forestry Users. As forests are essentially important elements within ecosystems, this set of successes is important. With the increase in forest cover, slopes have stabilised, biodiversity has increased, and watersheds have been restored.

Many development partners, including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, joined and supported the expansion phase of the Federation of Community Forestry Users, helping the institution grow organically. It has stood the test of time because of the strong role it has played in a country where nearly a third of the forests are managed by nearly a third of the country’s population – this in a country where over 70% of domestic cooking and heating energy comes from fuelwood.

Representational image. Photo credit: Reuters

Two major global events for climate action will take place in 2021 – The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in China in May and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in November. Why are these important? Can Hindu Kush Himalayan countries adopt a common approach at these conferences and beyond?
We are working closely with our member countries towards presenting a common position at both the UNFCCC’s COP26 in Glasgow in the UK and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP 15 in Kunming, China.

Both these events are very important for our region, and present, potentially game-changing opportunities for the Hindu Kush Himalayan region to come together to take urgent climate action so that disasters like the one that occurred a few days ago in Uttarakhand could be avoided.

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation.