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Harnessing the hidden power of mountains to meet our climate and development goals

Remote mountain regions like the Upper Mustang in Nepal are often neglected by the rest of the world. Timothy Karpouzoglou, Author provided

Harnessing the hidden power of mountains to meet our climate and development goals

The Upper Mustang, once an isolated and remote kingdom on the edge of Nepal, is where many people believe the Buddhist monk Guru Rinpoche chased a demon deep into the flanks of the mountains.

The demon was cut into pieces, defining the landscape and lush surroundings. In locals prayers and myths, demons and deities often incarnate the environment, making the mountains more lively and precious to locals.

But no matter what they mean to their residents, remote mountain regions like the Upper Mustang are often neglected by the rest of the world. This is surprising because mountain regions, especially in the developing world, play a very important role in the provision of water supply as well as energy (in the form of hydropower) for growing cities and agriculture.

Global policy attention to mountain development has dwindled since the 1992 Rio Summit. At the same time, there has been an overbearing emphasis on the melting of mountain glaciers, which often misses the point about how local communities in mountain environments are adapting to climate change.

As world leaders from 195 countries meet at the Marrakesh climate talks to discuss solutions for climate change, mountain development should be part of the conversation.

In mountain regions, crucial climate information is often locked behind institutional and technological barriers. Lack of climate information can hinder preparedness for devastating natural disasters, such as landslides and floods. More lives and property could have been saved in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal if better, and locally tailored information systems had existed when disaster struck.

As part of our work on the MOUNTAIN EVO project, we are passionate about research in remote mountain regions of the world that can generate locally relevant knowledge about climate change.

Combining citizen science approaches with technological breakthroughs in environmental sensing enables reducing the costs of information collection and dissemination as compared to expensive weather stations. It helps us get valuable knowledge to the people to whom information matters most.

Citizen science in the Himalayas

View of Kagbeni, Uppper Mustang, Nepal. Timothy Karpouzoglou

One of our study sites is located in a far remote corner of Nepal. Mustang, also known as the “Lost Kingdom” of Tibet, predates the formation of the Nepalese state by three millennia. Some of the highest parts of Nepal are located at an elevation of more than 5,000m.

In Mustang, we have been working with agropastoralists practising a combination of livestock farming and small-scale agriculture to understand how we can make climate information relevant to their livelihoods. We have observed changes in the rainfall pattern with possible risks for balancing water supply for irrigation, and that has an impact on how much food they can produce.

Working together with local communities, we have been able to install monitoring sensors that measure how much water is flowing in the stream. We rely on “citizen observers” – people from different village communities in Mustang who participate as they observe – to record and then spread information to various users.

Scientists working with citizen observers to install a water sensor in a stream close to Phalyak and Dhakarjung, Mustang, Nepal. Feng Mao

Unlike citizen science in developed countries, where volunteering is often hobby, in developing countries citizen observers very often derive a small wage for their engagement. At the moment, we are also exploring the use of low-cost technologies for information visualisation (such as setting up small screens in villages) to create alternative ways for local people to observe changes in their local climate in real-time.

Concept illustration for an on-site monitoring screen. Feng Mao

Use of pre-Inca technology in Peru

Another study site is located in Peru, in the mountain district of Huamantanga. Some of the higher parts of Huamantanga are at an elevation of more than 4,500m, yet Huamantanga is only a three-hour drive from the coastal Peruvian capital, Lima.
In Huamantanga, subsistence agriculture combined with raising cattle is central to poor people’s livelihoods. People rely on livestock to produce meat and dairy products, such as milk and cheese, for their family revenue.

But heavy animal grazing of mountain pastures in the uplands combined with increasing water scarcity and irregular rainfall has created new uncertainties and vulnerabilities for poor people. Younger people see an increasingly difficult future and aspire to migrate to Lima for better opportunities. As one high school student said:

Our option is to go to the city to study or to find a job if we don’t want to stay only taking care of the cattle.

This has also created a strong push for water conservation. Water conservation in the uplands can help restore degraded pastures while generating benefits for water users downstream. Under the new leadership of the recently appointed Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, there is much promise of getting the incentives right for linking water and development.

The mountain district of Huamantanga in the Andean mountains, Peru. Timothy Karpouzoglou, Author provided

The mamanteo, a pre-Inca practice of using water, is central for water conservation efforts in Huamantanga. Based on the construction of small channels that divert water from streams, the mamanteos allow water to infiltrate areas with natural underground storage.

In this way, water is retained during the rainy season, and remains available longer into the dry season at the naturals springs near the village, where it can be used for irrigation. We are helping by recording climate data such as temperature, river flow and precipitation as part of trying to understand better use of mamanteos.

Using demonstration plots in the school and having a small laptop computer that displays climate information at the community centre are two of the ways in which we are channelling valuable knowledge back to local users.

People in Huamantanga are particularly concerned about how much water is stored in natural water reservoirs and the extent to which water availability is likely to change in the context of climate change. By designing environmental virtual observatories, linking local-level knowledge with regional data, we can begin to unravel answers that address these concerns.

A water spring that’s part of the mamanteo in Huamantanga, Peru. Timothy Karpouzoglou

Our experiences suggest that remote mountain regions of the world are closer to the climate problem than we think, particularly in the context of safeguarding essential ecosystem services such as safe and adequate water.

As the world turns its attention to the latest round of climate talks in Marrakesh, and the daunting challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should not lose sight of mountains and how we can work together on climate change action and local development.

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