Mountain prophecies

December 23, 2010
Hans Schreier

Looking to the mountains may give us an early indication of what's in store for the entire planet.

For many people, the United Nations' designation of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains may seem an unlikely choice. After all, 60 per cent of the world's population lives within 500 km of a coastline. That suggests it might be more sensible to cast our collective gaze towards the world's coasts rather than skyward to those rocky peaks.

In reality, however, mountains have an enormous impact on all inhabitants of the world - whether they live at high altitude, on a rambling plain, or at the water's edge.

A scan of the most pressing issues facing the global community reveals the crucial role that mountains play. Climate change, preservation of fresh water supplies, protection of biodiversity, the resolution of potentially explosive human conflicts... it's impossible to deal with any of these challenges without looking towards the world's mountains.

To do this effectively, however, we will need to expand and improve our base of knowledge - not just about mountain ecosystems and how they function, but about the unique economic and social dynamics that exist in high-altitude communities, and which are sure to complicate any efforts to solve the world's most daunting problems.

There is no more profound an illustration of how important mountains are to the world - even to seemingly remote lowland populations - than the issue of the supply of fresh water.

Mountains have been described as "the water towers of the world." Almost all major rivers have their source in mountains, and more than half of humanity relies on water from these rivers for domestic use, irrigation, industry, and the generation of hydroelectric power. These downward-flowing waters are also essential to the health of ecosystems; providing nutrients for aquatic life and diluting pollutants generated mostly in lowland areas.

In the years to come, those 'water towers' will become even more critical as urbanization and the intensification of agriculture threatens to deplete and contaminate existing groundwater sources. While 50 percent of the global population currently lives in urban regions, that is expected to rise to 70 percent in the next 20 years, placing enormous strain on the lowland water supply. Given a need to increase food production by at least 50 percent over the next three decades - and remembering that agriculture already accounts for about 70 percent of freshwater use - farming can be expected to contribute a substantial additional strain.

All of this underscores the need for scientists to learn more about how mountain water resources might fit into the emerging picture. Current levels of research are inadequate: 75 percent of all stream flow monitoring, for instance, is conducted at elevations below 500 meters above sea-level. How do we know what is happening at higher altitudes? At the same time, the faster-than-anticipated melting of glaciers (which feed most mountain streams) is begging new questions about how best to preserve this crucial resource - a challenge that ranks among the most important tests facing humanity.

The struggle to protect the world's biodiversity is another issue of global scope that is likely to be played out largely in the mountains.

This is because mountains are home to a breathtaking range of biological species. Different elevation gradients produce a variety of microclimates that allow unique plant communities to flourish. Mountain forests are also botanically unique and ecologically crucial, playing a key role in environmental preservation by stabilizing steep mountain slopes and minimizing the production of sediment during lowland flooding seasons.

In the past, the survival of these varied but fragile repositories of life has been aided by the fact that mountain areas have remained mostly inaccessible to humans.

But that's starting to change, given a new spirit of adventure. Mountains are becoming the recreational and spiritual playgrounds of urban populations. In the Alps, for instance, cityfolk seeking invigorating scenery and sporting opportunities routinely invade mountain villages for short periods in both winter and summer.

This trend has serious environmental implications. Bursts of tourist activities in August and February, for instance, coincide with the points at which stream flow in the Alps is at its minimum - placing a dangerous burden on the water supply. Human activity is also an obvious threat to both flora and fauna, which managed to survive in isolation in these fragile, delicately-balanced environments for centuries before tourists started heading for the hills en masse.

Indeed, the thorny question of how to manage tourism provides an indication of just how difficult it may be to strike a workable balance when crafting policy on economic development in mountain areas.

On the one hand, unrestrained economic exploitation could bring ecological disaster to the world's mountain regions. But on the other, there's a pressing need to mitigate some of the economic and social problems that face mountain-dwelling communities. Most of the world's 500 million people who make their homes in the mountains live in poverty, a fact that has led to social strife and, in some cases, open warfare.

There's a profound economic inequality between mountain societies and lowland peoples; an inequality that's rooted in the fundamentally inhospitable and hazardous nature of the mountain environment.
Mountain farming, for instance, is always risky business, with yields that could never match those achieved in lowland areas where temperatures, length of growing season, and soil conditions are more favourable. Access to markets (for agricultural products, lumber and minerals, and migrant labour) is also problematic, since the cost of building and maintaining roads is usually exorbitant in the mountains. In addition, there are the ever-looming hazards of avalanches, landslides, and slope failure, which discourage economic activity and increase costs.

This picture of economic gloom has far-reaching implications for global security.

We can look to a majority of the world's conflicts - for instance, in Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Philippines, Colombia, and Ethiopia - and see that they have their roots in the mountains. This is partly because of the strategic advantages offered by mountains, which can serve as a secure, secluded base for guerrilla movements.

Yet the intrinsic economic problems of mountain regions also help to fuel those conflicts. Given the hardships of living and working in mountainous regions, conflicts often break out over use of resources such as water, the migration of livestock, and the encroachment of particular ethnic groups into other groups' territory. Addressing the economic roots of these problems is key to establishing security in mountainous areas.

Already there are promising ideas about how that might be done. It is essential that mechanisms are put in place to compensate mountain people for the benefits their homelands provide to lowland regions. Some of the revenues generated by mountain-based hydoelectric projects, for instance, should flow back to the highland communities - rather than merely enriching the lowland cities that use the power. These fairer economic arrangements will require, in turn, that mountain dwellers have a greater voice in decision-making.

In toto, looking to the mountains may give us an early indication of what's in store for the entire planet. The effects of climate change, for instance, will likely be seen first in the sensitive ecosystems high above sea level - only later to creep down to lower elevations to affect food production, ecosystem health, and human activities.

That's one reason why humanity should be concerned about what happens in the mountains. It is hoped that the public attention generated by the International Year of Mountains will help us cast our eyes upward and will entice individuals and organizations to conduct the kind of research into mountain issues that is desperately needed.

Hans Schreier is a Professor at the Institute for Resources and Environment at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on watershed management, land-water interactions, and soil and water pollution, as well as on interdiciplinary evaluations of mountain processes. He has dedicated much of his research time to water and resource issues in the Himalayas and Andes and has developed a number of multi-media CD-ROMs to create awareness of mountain processes. He also developed four distance education courses on watershed management that are delivered via the Internet. Participants from the remotest mountain systems of the world can thus participate in this educational program.

Prof. Schreier is the co-researcher of an important project suppported by IDRC and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and done in collaboration with scientists of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). This project takes a regional approach (India, Bhutan, China, and Nepal) to sustainable development of the Himalayas.