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Serving mountain people

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and Bhutan have enjoyed a fruitful partnership for more than 30 years. Recently, we celebrated our deepening engagement by organizing a Bhutan-ICIMOD Day in Thimphu.

In Bhutan, ICIMOD is engaged in a number of areas prioritized by the government. We have a programme called Himalica dealing with livelihoods at the community level. Under this initiative there is a pilot in Tsirang district, and we are working on how communities adapt, how to build resilience at the local level, how to promote high value products, and manage natural resource and ecosystem services better. We have been working in the past on regional flood information systems with the World Meteorological Organization and have set up nine climatic stations across the country, and we are moving into a stage where we are building a regional information system making sure that information is delivered to the users and communities. Bhutan has been very active in this process, and the Department of Hydromet Services has been our key partner. We have a programme of transboundary landscapes, and one of those landscapes is the Kanchenjunga Landscape that covers the Toorsa Strict Nature Reserve, the Jigme Dorji National Park, plus neighboring areas in India and Nepal, and we are looking at a range of issues about conservation and development, such as livelihoods improvement and nature conservation. It covers issues like the elephants living down in the plains to yaks living up in the mountain areas. It also covers human-wildlife conflict. We are therefore getting our plans ready and moving forward in a big way in the Kanchenjunga Landscape.

Another area is in remote sensing and GIS work. When I started three years ago we had a wonderful event here in Bhutan showing off products in remote sensing and GIS. Since then we have been developing that further and advancing topics like forest fire detection and land cover dynamics change. In October 2014, we launched a Geoportal for Bhutan. We are starting up work on REDD+ where we will get into issues of monitoring forest. We have strong work on the glaciers and snow. Some years ago ICIMOD mapped the dangerous glacier lakes in Bhutan. We hope to do more in the area of glacier, snow, and GLOFs and are building capacity in that area. Another issue is air pollution which is a transboundary phenomenon. Lots of dust and smoke come up into the mountain areas causing increase in glacier melt. We are working on options to mitigate pollution right across the region. We are involved in a Himalayan University Consortium and the Royal University of Bhutan is very much involved in that.

Today, we are seeing a drama of climate change unfolding. So, the melting glaciers often make it to the international news and international stage as a direct signal of climate change. In Bhutan, for example, over the last 30 years, the area of the glaciers has shrunk by 22%, according to ICIMOD studies. So, we get worried: what is happening to our water, what is happening to our water resources? We see new phenomenon, the threat these glacier lakes pose in the form of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), so we really have new challenges to deal with. Thus, when looking ahead, we recognize that we face special challenges in mountain areas.

On the other hand, mountains are full of opportunities. So, if we think about migration, we can also think about the remittances from migration. What about the money coming back into the country? Can we put that to better use, for environment and livelihoods? Let’s think about different unique mountain products, the wonderful fruits and vegetable in the mountains. Can we get that to the market and bring more income to mountain people? Ecotourism, where I think Bhutan has done a wonderful job, is indeed an example for other countries in the region.  Energy and its use is a huge issue. Today, Bhutan is special in its hydropower development and the country seems to be seriously promoting electric vehicles. Indeed, Bhutan is setting an example in the use of green and sustainable energy.

The biggest opportunity is the learning right across this region in mountains and from mountain people. There is a big opportunity in fostering south-south collaboration amongst mountain people in mountain research, amongst institutes in the region. So, the question then for us and indeed for ICIMOD is, can we work together to share this mountain knowledge, to face the challenges of today and tomorrow? The mountain area is typically an area where we see knowledge gaps in our science. Can we work together to fill those knowledge gaps? Can we develop mountain-specific knowledge, gather and share it in the region, and can we bring the issues of mountains to the global community and bring attention to the mountains? All those I believe are roles that ICIMOD and Bhutan can play, and are already playing to a great extent.

Let me finish with two ideas. First, there is a lot of strength in our collaboration over 30 years and that is something that we should build on. Second, when we think about mountain challenges we see that they are only getting bigger. So we have to think cleverly and be smart about it. Let us work together to serve Bhutan, and to serve the mountain people of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

Contributed by

Dr David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD

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