Managing climate risks in mountainous areas

By Mikaela Rambali, OECD Environment Directorate, and Takayoshi Kato, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

Kedarnath Disaster 2013

Mountain communities and ecosystems are highly exposed to climate hazards due to rugged terrains, steep slopes and stark seasonal contrasts. Looking at the impacts of a changing climate in mountainous areas is like pressing fast forward: temperatures have been increasing more rapidly than the global average. In western North America, South American Andes, the European Alps and High Mountain Asia, warming over recent decades has outpaced the global warming rate, at an average rate of 0.3°C   as opposed to  0.2 ± 0.1°C per decade. The scale and intensity of hazards amplified by climate change, such as landslides, avalanches and glacial lake outburst floods, can lead to wide-ranging consequences in both high and low lands, and across human systems.

The rate of change today is likely to be well above the ability of mountain communities and ecosystems to cope. People in the Indian Himalayan region, for instance, have for centuries learned to live and survive with changes in their environment, but many of them consider the present rate of change in the climate as taking place too rapidly to adapt.

Devastating floods due to a combination of heavy rains and the melting of a glacier in Uttarakhand, an Indian state located in the Himalayan region, resulted in more than 5 700 casualties in 2013. In 2021, Uttarakhand again suffered from floods, killing people and destroying infrastructure and assets such as buildings, roads and hydropower plants.

Mountain ecosystems are undergoing significant change, reflected in species composition and abundance, upslope migration and changes in habitats. Hydrological cycles are changing too: river flows and precipitation, glacier retreat and reduced snow cover are affecting what are called “water towers”. Nearly half of the glaciers in high mountains in Asia may disappear by the end of the 21st century, which is expected to affect river runoffs in varying ways.  

What’s happening in mountain regions matters

Mountains are home to 13% of the world’s population, including 90% of them living in developing countries. Mountains cover nearly 30% of the Earth’s land surface and accommodate more than 85% of the world’s species of amphibians, birds and mammals. They provide critical natural resources and ecosystem services to sustain human systems for food production, energy generation, manufacturing, cultural value, to name a few. For instance, the water towers mentioned above supply water to nearly 2 billion people globally.

What can we do to strengthen climate resilience in mountainous areas?

Governments are increasingly aware of the importance and challenges of making mountainous areas more resilient to climate change. In 2019, the UN General Assembly Resolution on sustainable mountain development urged countries to integrate mountain-specific policies into national sustainable development strategies. Sixty governments and numerous non-state actors have joined the Mountain Partnership, established in 2002 as a voluntary alliance to promote sustainable development of mountains and mountainous communities across the world.

A new OECD publication, Strengthening Climate Resilience in Mountainous Areas, explores some action points available to policy makers in developing countries and to non-state actors for addressing the challenges of building resilience in the context of the climate emergency. The key takeaways include:

  • Multiscale co-ordination within a mountain landscape is key. Policy interventions in upslope areas may have significant consequences for communities, ecosystems and infrastructure in downslope areas, even hundreds of kilometres away. Co-ordination between actors and across sectors within the mountain landscape provides a basis for designing and implementing policies that manage trade-offs and facilitate benefit sharing.
  • Policy and financial decision-making need to rely on the social, economic, financial and political inclusion of communities at the landscape level. Mountain communities tend to be marginalised geographically, politically and economically. Their inclusion in decision-making processes is critical for improving their access to resources that enable them to prepare for and recover from climate-related hazards.
  • Financing mechanisms need to consider mountain specific challenges. In the Hindu Kush Himalayan region alone, building climate resilience could cost between USD 5.5 to 7.8 billion annually by 2050. However, attracting investment in remote and hilly terrain with sparse population and limited trade infrastructure is more challenging and costly than in plain areas.
  • Further investment in data and information is essential.It is critical to further scale up investment in the installation and maintenance of weather stations and observation systems, especially in remote and depopulated areas. Limited local weather and climate data and information constrains sound decision-making for climate resilience in mountains. This is among the greatest challenges to both short-term early warning for imminent disasters, and long-term planning for reducing and adapting to climate and disaster risks.
  • Integrating traditional and local knowledge into scientific research can help identify locally relevant measures for strengthening climate resilience.This has proven effective for planning locally led action. For example, the results of glacial risk assessment have complemented local traditional knowledge on water resource management and irrigation arrangements in Nepal and Peru. Facilitating dialogue between policy makers and scientific communities in mountainous regions is the aim of the Adaptation at Altitude programme.
  • Efforts to strengthen climate resilience in mountain communities are inseparable from action to protect mountain biodiversity and to use ecosystem services sustainably. Nature-based solutions have been increasingly implemented to support climate change adaptation. For example, the Miraflores community in the High Andes refurbished an ancient water management system to restore water flow to native grasslands. Combined with “grey” (or traditional) infrastructure, this has improved pastureland management and increased their resilience to climate change.

Mountain regions are diverse and complex. Recognising this is essential for building the resilience of mountain communities and ecosystems in the context of growing climate risks. There are good practices and examples of approaches to learn from to integrate climate resilience considerations into development policies, programmes and projects in mountainous areas.

Further reading:

Kato, T., M. Rambali and V. Blanco-Gonzalez (2021), “Strengthening climate resilience in mountainous areas”, OECD Development Co-operation Working Papers, No. 104, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1af319f0-en.

OECD (2021), Strengthening Climate Resilience: Guidance for Governments and Development Co-operation: https://www.oecd.org/climate-change/resilience/

OECD (2020), Common Ground Between the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework: Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/3edc8d09-en    

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