11 December 2018

Africa: Extreme Weather Menacing Lives, Livelihoods of Mountain People

opinion

In the dark hours before dawn each day, Mrs Saili and her three daughters quietly slip away from their Nepalese mountain village to begin their three-hour walk to the nearest river to fetch drinking water for the day. Malnutrition is evident from the sores around her mouth and her small frame; nothing can be grown on the drought-parched land around her village.

At the opposite extreme, typhoons lash Cordilleras Mountain communities in the Philippines where Anna, an elderly widow, recalls how, in her childhood, such extreme weather threatened only once or twice per year so rice varieties could be rotated to suit conditions. Now, however, violent weather hits as often as twice a month, with such frequency and force that mountain villages cannot cope. Young people are forced to seek work in the cities and Anna earns a meagre living by showing tourists the historic rice terraces.

In northwest Italy's mountainous Val di Susa, extensive drought all through summer 2018 contributed to fires that destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and drove farmers, wine and oil producers from their homes. Meanwhile, climate change-related drought - and with it, deforestation - continues to threaten ecosystems in mountainous areas of Malawi, including the Ntchisi Mountain Forest Reserve, home to an extensive biodiversity of animals, plans, and trees. This forest is also the primary source of water for people in this central region of the African country.

Around the globe, such stories of devastating weather destroying mountain communities and livelihoods are told - events that threaten the one billion people who live in such normally productive high places. These people are on the very front lines of climate change and consequently, have high levels of hunger, with one in three facing food insecurity, driven mostly by severe climate events.

But it's not too late for all of us to take actions to assist mountains peoples and to work to mitigate at least some of the effects of climate change. Don't forget that the forces threatening the mountain peoples and their environment affect us as well. Most of our freshwater comes from the world's mountains; as do many of our livelihoods, even if we live far from the high places and think we're removed from what happens there. Remember: more than half the world's population relies on mountains for water, food and clean energy.

Mountain glaciers, snow and permafrost store and regulate freshwater resources. As much as 80 percent of the world's freshwater spills down from mountains - so, imagine the consequences for all of us living downstream if those flows were cut off. Already, climate change has caused more than 600 of the world's glaciers to disappear, resulting in springs and rivers drying up.

Climate change is exacerbating land degradation and natural disasters, which further threatens lives in the mountains and below. It contributes to the soaring occurrence of fatal landslides, up by 125 percent between 2003 and 2017. As avalanches, mudflows and landslides sweep down, they strip bare forests, flooding communities and populations in their paths.

The challenges faced by these mountain peoples is giving us a preview and a warning for our own futures if we fail to act immediately to support sustainable development, halt climate change and help to build resilience to preserve the world's mountain areas. Diversifying food systems, and supporting sustainable farming and production, for example, can build resilience to climate events among mountain people. Greater government support for social safety net programmes, training and education also boost resilience.

Expanding economic activities such as sustainable mountain tourism can foster development in remote regions.

So, what can we do? For one thing, we consumers can play our part by purchasing food and other goods identified by the Mountain Products Initiative label - a guarantee that mountain producers have been fairly compensated for their work. Those products range from the unique purple rice grown in India's Himalayas to Ceibal coffee from Panama.

As well, we can all use the opportunity of International Mountain Day on 11 December 2018 to reflect on the lives of the world's mountain peoples, why they matter so much, and why we must help to support sustainable mountain development for the benefits of us all.

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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