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Climate, DRR and Environment Nexus Brief: Mountains in a Changing Climate

This nexus brief synthesizes the findings of recent publications on mountains and climate change and looks at strategies for successful adaptation.
Multiple Authors
Strategies for successful adaptation
Strategies for successful adaptation.Image credit: Zoï Environment Network

Key Messages

The mountain regions of the world are home to more than 1 billion people and are distinguished by their geologic characteristics, their biodiversity, their array of cultures, and their vulnerability to climate change. The mountains are warming more rapidly than the lowlands, and the results are threatening mountain ecosystems and the life they support. The rate of change is unprecedented.

The increasing number of extreme precipitation events, to name one example, may trigger more compounding and cascading events. Thus, a hard rain may produce run-off that gathers force as it flows downhill triggering slides and rockfalls that become debris flows that crush whatever is in their path and block river channels, cause dam failures and floods, and destroy infrastructure. Such events are already occurring, and the projected changes in hazards will only increase the risks.

People in the mountains have been adapting to a changing environment throughout history, but the pace of climate change has mountain communities struggling to adapt. The current funding for climate adaptation in the mountains is not nearly enough to support climate-resilient sustainable mountain development, and mountain communities do not have the resources required for the effort.

Not everything that happens in the mountains stays in the mountains, however, and the consequences of climate change in the mountains affect the lowlands as well. The areas closest to the mountains will feel the effects first, but eventually everyone will. About 2 billion people living in the lowlands depend on freshwater from the mountains. Hydropower development and disruptions in the water cycle in the mountains may threaten the water security of those in the lowlands. Eventually, in light of the 68 per cent of global irrigated agriculture that depends on mountain freshwater, water insecurity may spread throughout the lowlands and lead to widespread food insecurity as well.

In short, we all have a stake in what happens in the mountains, particularly those of us who drink water and eat food. Enlightened self-interest alone could be incentive enough for all of us to work to ensure that no mountain people are left behind.

Introduction

According to the latest IPCC reports, many mountain regions are experiencing climate change impacts with serious consequences for people and ecosystems – reductions in snow cover extent and duration, loss of glacier mass, thawing of permafrost, increases in the number and size of glacial lakes and changes in seasonal weather patterns – all related to higher temperatures.

This nexus brief* synthesizes the findings of recent publications on mountains and climate change, in particular IPCC Cross-Chapter Paper 5: Mountains (2022) and the OECD Development Co-operation Working Paper: Strengthening climate resilience in mountainous areas (2021).

*This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text(This brief is available inSpanish and French under Further Resources below).

Policy Responses

Mainstreaming mountain considerations into national plans

The mainstreaming of mountain-specific challenges into National Adaptation Plans and Nationally Determined Contributions, as well as other national plans linked to global frameworks, is a necessary element in the broad goal of leaving no one behind. Similarly, the mainstreaming of mountain considerations can inform national plans for a green economy or an energy strategy or any plans related to biodiversity or disaster risk reduction.

Multisectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration and cross-sectoral policies

Water users in upstream and downstream areas often have different and competing interests – the generation of electricity and the irrigation of crops, for example. Stakeholder engagement can help reconcile the differences, but it must be inclusive to be successful, and must work to involve marginalised and vulnerable groups.

Strategies for Successful Adaptation

Better information for decision-making

Efforts to build resilience in the mountains rely on an understanding of climate risk, and the mapping of the populations, assets and ecosystems exposed to climate-related hazards is a starting point for developing plans and policies.

Greater investment is also needed for the installation and maintenance of weather stations and observation systems and for the application of hydrometeorological models.

Sharing good practices

Mountain areas across the world face similar challenges under climate change, and would benefit from increased international and cross-regional exchange of knowledge and experience.

Nature-based solutions that support climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in mountain areas are finding favour among governments, development cooperation providers, and the private sector. Among the ecosystem-based adaptations in wide use in the mountains are afforestation, reforestation and improved forest management to reduce the risks of shallow landslides, and river restoration to reduce the risks of floods.

Investment in climate resilience and adaptation

Governments can improve the enabling environment for mobilising climate financing by providing incentives for private sector investment through public interventions that lower or transfer risk, by mainstreaming climate considerations into national and local budgets and sectoral plans, and by facilitating access to climate finance.

Another option that may appeal in mountain regions is market-based payment for ecosystem services, an instrument that is increasingly used across the globe to finance the conservation of nature.

Raising awareness

Raising their awareness may result in the collaboration of civil society organisations and local government, the benefits of which may include the combining of traditional knowledge and scientific research in the development of adaptation strategies.

Leaving no one behind

With more than 90 per cent of the people who live in the mountains living in developing countries, and more than 60 per cent living in rural areas that experience poverty, marginalisation, lack of economic opportunities, inadequate basic services and infrastructure, and remoteness from centres of power, the feeling of being left behind might be all too common.

Relevance for Development Cooperation

The myriad mountain hazards and the potential for cascading events warrant the attention of development cooperation, but the additional consideration of the number of downstream people who rely on mountain ecosystem services makes the case for development assistance particularly compelling.

Suggested citation

Saalismaa N. and Otto Simonett O. (2023), Mountains in a Changing Climate: Climate, DRR and Environment, Nexus Brief. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation: Bern, Switzerland.

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