On October 15, ministers from the eight Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) countries convened virtually for the Ministerial Mountain Summit. The long-anticipated call-to-action event signaled a future for these nations — a commitment to sustainability, poverty alleviation, and peace. The summit was hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organization with representatives from all eight HKH countries. It was originally planned for April, but was pushed back due to concerns with COVID-19. With this first important step, each nation now has the opportunity to implement their agreements.
The nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan comprise the HKH and ICIMOD, and high-level representatives from each country were present at the summit. GlacierHub received an invitation to the event and participated remotely.
The event began with remarks from David Molden, in his last act as director general of ICIMOD. “This is a landmark day for people in the mountains, in Asia, and across the world,” he said.
Next, the deputy director general of ICIMOD Eklabya Sharma spoke. Sharma remarked that the Hindu Kush Himalayas are home to 240 million people, with 1.9 billion people living in the surrounding hills and river basins. Due to this vast population, the area is diverse, with 1,000 unique languages represented in the mountains alone.
Sharma highlighted a paradox: despite the region’s rich cultural diversity and access to natural resources, many of the people living in the mountains are struggling to survive. A third of them live in poverty. Half are malnourished, and women and children are even more likely to be adversely affected by food insecurity. The region also faces the challenges of heightened environmental concerns. Air pollution exposure, which often exceeds levels recommended by the World Health Organization, affects the circulation of monsoons, causing altered rain distribution and reduced crop yields.
Sharma then outlined six urgent action items comprising the HKH Call to Action, that would be affirmed throughout the remainder of the summit: limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, enhancing ecosystem resilience, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, sharing knowledge and building trust across nations, listening to the voices of HKH people, and improving livelihoods across the region.
Next, the ministers from the eight nations each offered his country’s support of the HKH Call to Action. The alphabetical order of the countries’ English names determined the order in which the eight men spoke, signaling the meeting’s commitment to treating all the member nations as full and equal partners.
Anwarul Haq Ahadi, Afghanistan’s minister of agriculture, described the widespread effects of climate change that are already evident in his nation. “Afghanistan is a region of conflict, loss of life, insecurity, widespread damage of the environment and natural resources, [and] thousands were displaced by floods just a month ago,” he said. The minister saw the struggles of Afghanistan through a lens of necessary collaboration. “No one here is safe until everyone is,” he said in closing.
The minister of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs in Bangladesh, Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing, spoke next. Due to the virtual nature of the event, there were some technical difficulties during the Bangladeshi minister’s declaration.
Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor, Bhutan’s minister of agriculture and forests, delivered a message about Bhutan’s existing environmental policies and inequality. “Bhutan has committed to becoming carbon neutral, currently being one of the only carbon negative countries,” he said. “Despite championing on the environmental front, Bhutan remains severely impacted by climate change.”
China welcomed the declaration of the summit. Zhang Yaping is the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a professor at Kunming Institute of Zoology. He delivered a promise of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060, a target which his country recently established. He said that China would continue cooperating with ICIMOD and all of the member countries.
India’s minister of environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, took a similar approach to the summit. He explained that India is currently restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land. He also spoke about science and technology. “We must [update] multi-stakeholder science and policy on a regular basis, in order to enhance uptake of scientific knowledge for policy in the region,” he said. He also expressed his confidence and enthusiasm toward collaborating with the other nations.
“The HKH Call to Action is very much in line with Myanmar’s efforts,” said U Ohn Win, minister of natural resources and environmental conservation of Myanmar. He described a number of initiatives already in progress in his country, such as the creation of a legal framework protecting the forests, and programs directed at livelihood improvements for local communities.
Shakti Bahadur Basnet, the minister of forests and environment of Nepal, echoed the same sentiments, adding that Nepal would commit to the six action items. He noted the importance of collective action, and marked the summit as a “significant milestone.”
Syed Fakhar Imam, Pakistan’s minister of national food security and research, also endorsed the agenda. He expressed his delight to be a part of the summit, saying “Pakistan will join hands with our neighboring countries and work for a prosperous future, sustainable strategic route map.”
After these assurances of support for the Call to Action, the group announced that they would hold a biennial Mountain Ministerial Summit. In the ministerial declaration, they also agreed to be a unified voice in global negotiations, and constitute a task force that would monitor each nation’s progress.
Pema Gyamtsho, the new director general of ICIMOD from Bhutan, delivered the closing remarks for the summit. He expressed his regards for director general Molden’s work and his excitement for the motivation of the member nations. “I am proud of [the member countries] demonstrating political will and commitment to protect the HKH region and secure the livelihoods of millions of people,” he said. “It hails the new beginning of the region.”
This commitment of sustainability bridges nations where borders are contested, sometimes with force, and where migratory flows are sources of tension. In the promises of promoting sustainability, there is also a commitment to cooperate peacefully to meet these goals. As Molden said in his last moment as ICIMOD director general, “HKH is the pulse of the planet, and when the pulse is strong, we know humanity is healthy. Hope lies in the willingness of governments to address these issues, and that begins today.”