On October 31, the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP) is expected to begin in Glasgow, Scotland, after having been delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COP is the top decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), established in 1992 to address the global threat of a warming world. COP26 is expected to address the projected warming of the planet over the next twenty years. Participants will include 196 nations and several thousand NGOs. One of these NGOs, ICIMOD, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, is working to introduce an alliance that will bring attention to the vulnerable mountain region of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) through a campaign titled #HKH2Glasgow. The campaign seeks to raise a unified Asian mountain voice at the international table for the first time in UNFCCC history.
ICIMOD was established in 1983 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) after years of deliberation over the need to create an institution to address mountain issues. Founded nearly forty years ago in order to “promote the ecologically sound development of mountainous regions,” ICIMOD continues to liaise between the countries that share the Hindu Kush Himalayas to promote regional cooperation and to the livelihoods of the people that depend on the mountain region.
There is much urgency to ICIMOD’s work in uniting this disparate, critical mountain range. The Hindu Kush Himalayas contain a vast majority of the world’s tallest mountains, and are shared across the national borders of eight countries. These eight countries are the regional member countries of ICIMOD: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. Uniting these countries is a shared concern for a mountain range that’s known to glaciologists as the Third Pole and contains the headwaters of 10 major Asian river systems including the Ganges, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers. According to ICIMOD, the Hindu Kush Himalayas provide the basis of livelihood for 240 million people in the mountain region, and a total of 1.9 billion people with the river basins that the mountains feed—roughly a quarter of the world’s total population.
In recognition of this region’s global importance, ICIMOD has taken to calling the Hindu Kush Himalayan region the “pulse of the planet.” It considers itself as the foremost intergovernmental institution operating in the region and to be leading the effort to protect it.
ICIMOD came to exist through the signing of an agreement between the Government of Nepal, as the hosting body, with UNESCO; the Government of Switzerland and the Federal Republic of Germany acting as founding sponsors. Since its founding, the organization has long had a history of Directors General who hailed from Europe and the US. It was only last year that a national from the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, Pema Gyamtsho from Bhutan, was appointed as Director General of the organization, despite the fact that by the end of 2018, 279 of the 295 ICIMOD staff members were nationals of the region. Before Pema Gyamtsho, ICIMOD was led by a development specialist from the United States, David Molden.
From the beginning, ICIMOD was intended as an applied research and development institute that worked across borders on shared concerns of, and opportunities for, mountain communities. “Our initiatives are usually trilateral in nature,” Pradyumna Rana, a climate change adaptation analyst at ICIMOD, told GlacierHub, adding “We have different partners in each country, usually government agencies or scientific institutions.” Indeed, ICIMOD has come to be an international authority on the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, publishing annual reports, leading academic publications, and contributing to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
In light of the upcoming COP, the organization has leveraged its network across the eight member countries to identify areas of convergence amongst them. “This is a campaign that is focused on a regional collective voice,” stated Nanki Kaur, the adaptation and resilience building regional manager at ICIMOD, speaking of #HKH2Glasgow. She noted that of the eight member countries, only Bhutan and Nepal are entirely mountainous, and added that “this is not a campaign that focuses on national positions, but on the shared mountain region.”
To that goal, ICIMOD’s role in spearheading #HKH2Glasgow is to provide their member countries with evidence of shared climate change adaptation interests across the region, thus to solidify a joint HKH position at COP26. In particular, Deepshikha Sharma, a climate and environmental specialist with ICIMOD, stressed the importance of identifying shared priorities among the eight countries in aligning COVID-19 recovery methods with what she called GRID—Green, Resilient, Inclusive Development. “By identifying the commonalities in commitments, and sectors made by the member countries to green recovery and green growth in the mountains,” Sharma told GlacierHub, ICIMOD could create “a common platform, a common baseline where all our member countries will come to.”
The #HKH2Glasgow campaign has already counted a number of successes towards its goal of promoting the Hindu Kush Himalayan region as the pulse of the planet. For one, the ICIMOD headquarters were visited by Alok Sharma, the President-Designate of the COP26, earlier this year. Alok Sharma served previously as Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy in President Boris Johnson’s Cabinet. “They [the COP Presidency] want to see strong messaging from our region at COP,” Deepshikha Sharma stated.
Another success is that the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has been recognized in the recent IPCC report as a unified whole: chapter 10 dedicates three pages to covering “Climate Change over the Hindu Kush Himalayas.” The report describes the Hindu Kush Himalayas as “the largest glacierized region outside of the poles” and warns that the area faces warmings of 1-2 degrees Celsius, with some areas facing 4-5 degrees Celsius, by 2050. These dire predictions are useful for the #HKH2Glasgow insofar as they bolster the argument for bold climate action in the region.
For a third success, Kaur stated that Nepal was already preparing to promote “the mountain agenda” in its COP26 statements. “We hope that the other seven nations will be doing the same,” she added.
Others remain cautious about the ability of the campaign to bring appropriate climate action to a vastly diverse region of mountain communities. Jorge Recharte, the executive director of the Instituto de Montaña in Peru, has worked extensively with mountain communities in the Andes to develop solutions around changing watershed conditions in the region. “Policies tend to arrive at mountain communities, rather than being built from the bottom-up,” Recharte remarked to GlacierHub. While Recharte recognized that ICIMOD was well-positioned, as technical experts in the region, to lead a campaign like #HKH2Glasgow, he noted that a risk inherent in developing regional policies is that they tend to be defined without proper connections to the needs of communities. “Policy should support local action, not the interests of national agencies or national research agendas,” he said.
ICIMOD works with regional partners on all of their projects, but as an intergovernmental organization, ICIMOD’s partners are selected by the governments of respective member countries, rather than by local grassroots efforts. “ICIMOD has different partners in each country, usually government agencies or scientific institutions,” Rana told Glacierhub. “We have partnerships with the ministries of each country. When a project comes, they are the ones who guide us.”
At COP26, ICIMOD will have a pavilion to showcase their work and bring attention to the needs of the HKH region as a part of the #HKH2Glasgow campaign. Though the exact proceedings of the COP are still uncertain given the rapidly developing circumstances of COVID-19, ICIMOD intends to bring a number of activities to the conference. These include hosting a number of sessions at the HKH focus day at the Cryosphere Pavilion, an HKH focus day at the UK Pavilion, and a digital pavilion that will show films about the region.
Still, some climate experts from the HKH region have raised concerns about the efficacy of promoting much-needed climate action in the region through the COP system. Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh, has attended every COP since its inauguration in 1995. After COP25, held in Madrid, Huq released a video in which he stated that “The overall review of the COPs…is that they’re no longer fit for purpose. The arguments into the late hours of the night over trivialities is simply not commensurate with the magnitude of the problem that we’re facing, in terms of impacts of climate change.”
Yet even within the limitations of the COP system, Jorge Recharte sees opportunities within taking a regional approach to climate change action in the mountains, as the #HKH2Glasgow campaign seeks to accomplish. “Mountains are islands in the sky,” he said. “You can see the next mountain, but to get there, you’d have to cross a whole valley. They’re quite isolated. So, you have to ask—how do we connect these spaces?”