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Mountain water supplies face threat

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Cordillera Huayhuash in August 2019. The Andes contains 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers and 71 percent are in Peru. UN photo

The world’s mountain and glacier regions are facing unprecedented challenges due to climate change, imposing a crippling effect on the people and economies that rely on them, the UN’s weather agency explained ahead of a summit to address the world’s rapidly-changing water systems.

The earth’s glaciers, snow, permafrost and associated ecosystems, collectively known as the cryosphere, provide drinkable water for half of the world, but as the earth gets warmer, the supply is becoming unpredictable.

The UN’s weather agency which is carefully monitoring the effects of climate change on water supplies, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and its partners, kicked off the High Mountain Summit in Geneva. Mountain environments are seeing changes in flash flooding patterns, retreating mountain glaciers, and changes to seasonal runoff.

As a result of these changes on the world’s peaks, freshwater supplies are being impacted, from mountainsides to urban economies, as recognized by the UN in a recent General Assembly Resolution on Sustainable Mountain Development.

From the Yukon to the Andes, the mountain cryosphere provides and regulates freshwater resources for around half of the world’s population, WMO explained in the summit concept note, and the retreating ice is creating major impacts.

Species dependent on snow cover are migrating further and further upslope; pastures irrigated by glacial melt are becoming parched; artificial snowmaking is compensating for limited snowfall on the ski slopes; and glacial lake flooding, landslides and avalanches are costing more lives and economic loss.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined these repercussions in a special report published in September, ahead of the three-day mountain summit, which addresses the growing burden of the changing climate and its strain on the earth’s water systems, from its oceans, to its ice sheets.

In the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, floods alone account for one-third of all natural disasters, which are increasing and leaving one billion people at greater risk of exposure, one expert on the region told summit attendees. Around the world, the human impacts of natural hazards are rising, nearly doubling every decade.

WMO’s high-level dialogue aims to engage decision-makers and local actors to make the most of existing mechanisms to enhance the presence and quality of hydro-meteorological and climate services for disaster risk reduction, and better water resource management.

Those who are mountain dwellers and know them well have a unique relationship with nature, therefore, the culture aspect is key when it comes to implementing disaster disk management technologies in places they’ve never been before.

People who are indigenous to Peru’s Andes region have long seen glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) as a fact of life and worshipped the mountain as a god. Building a weather station in a sacred place could stir fear of supernatural consequences among locals, who believe they may be punished by rain or drought, one environmentalist explained.

The nexus between research and decisions which will impact local people, however positive, is therefore, a delicate one, and clearly communicating the benefits of change is essential.
Further, the September IPCC report highlights the importance of locals’ and indigenous knowledge, coupled with scientific understanding, in building successful approaches to helping the earth’s highlands.

In recent years, two neighboring indigenous populations in the United States, who share a large reservation in the northern Rocky Mountains, rely on glacier meltwater for pasture irrigation, fishery maintenance, and traditional ceremonies, and thus, have sought to install mechanisms for more efficient water use, but were met with land law roadblocks.

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