UN study reveals scale of crisis facing mountain regions

Posted: 26 February 2002

The huge scale of problems facing mountain ecosystems - home to 600 million people and source of water for half the world's population - is revealed in a new study to coincide with the start of the UN Year of the Mountains, 2002.

This shows that though several of the world's mountain areas are in good shape, many face accelerating environmental and cultural decline. Most threatened, says the UN University report, are the European Alps and the Himalaya-Karakorum-Hindu Kush chain, which stretches from the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and China, across Northern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. terracesRainfed terraces (bari) have totally remodelled the mountain slopes near Kakani, Nepal.© Professor Jacks D. Ives Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.Other mountain ecosystems under special stress include the Rockies and Coastal Ranges of North America, the Tatra Mountains in Poland, the Snowy Mountains in Australia, the Great Smoky Mountains in the United States, the Pamir Mountains in Tajikstan, the Hegduan Mountains in southern China, the Sierra Chincua Mountains in Mexico and the Amber Mountains in Madagascar.

Mounting threats

Among the threats many such mountain regions are climate change, pollution, population growth, deforestation and exploitative agriculture, and mining and tourism practices. Another problem is armed conflict, with 23 of 27 of today's wars being fought in mountain regions.

According to the study, published on the eve of an International Symposium on Mountain Ecosystems, held in Tokyo in February 2002, there is an urgent need to manage these regions and their watersheds in a way that embraces and integrates many sciences - including human sciences such as anthropology, social science and human geography.

Another need, says Professor Ives of Canada's Carlton University, is "the promotion of alternative livelihood opportunities for mountain people in developing countries, to alleviate poverty at the root of so many of their health and environmental problems."

Highlighting specific problems in the developed world, the report focuses on the European Alps and the Rocky Mountains of North America. In the former, two-season tourism has grown exponentially since the 1950s, severely compromising traditional alpine culture and beauty. Once pristine mountain valleys are now a litter of cable cars, ski lifts, tourist facilities and car parks.

European Alps

In recent years, warmer than usual weather has reduced the length of the ski season at lower elevations. Yet despite the decline in snow conditions, millions of tourist vehicles, added to already heavy commercial traffic, continue to cause dangerous air pollution levels in many alpine valleys.

Current development trends show population shifting from the small farming communities in the Alpine zone (above 1,000 metres) to a handful of economic centers. Many experts believe that if this migration continues it will lead to a variety of problems throughout the Alps.

"The depopulation of small mountain communes, contrary to popular belief, leads to accelerated soil erosion and landslides because the traditional farming patterns are frequently the best precautions against landscape degradation," says Dr Ives.

The Alps supply the flow to major European rivers including the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, and the Po.

"The importance of the Alps, both in terms of a secure supply of high quality water and hydroelectricity cannot be over-stated," says Dr Ives. "The threat of water pollution stemming from developments of all kinds - including mass tourism - is growing in the Alps."

Dr Ives says encouraging signs that European governments are accelerating work to address mountain-related problems include the signature of an Alpine Convention by countries from France to Slovenia, and the December 2001 designation of the Aletsch region of the Swiss Alps as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Aletsch includes the famous peaks of Jungfrau, Eiger, Bietschhorn, Wetterhorn, and the Aletsch forest. Its World Heritage Site designation should help protect the region from further inappropriate and damaging development, Dr Ives added.

North America

In the coastal ranges of North America, skiing and other recreation is placing unsustainable pressures on many areas, says the report. Both in Canada and the United States, conflicts are emerging over the competing demands of recreationalists, environmentalists, logging and mining industries.

The growth of telecommuting in North American society over the last 10-15 years also means that ever larger numbers of people are building homes in prime mountain land and maintaining their business interests long-distance. This is creating management problems ranging from parks fire protection issues to the preservation of wildlife habitat.

Unlike previous booms in mining, cattle, or energy, today's development growth in the North American Rockies is driven by new economies - services, recreation and information. The result is sprawling land-use conversion, mostly from agriculture to residential, even in the most rural areas, leading to fragmented land ownership, sharper contrasts in land-use at public/private boundaries, and natural habitat loss.

Such problems are becoming better recognized, Dr Ives said. In Canada, for example, a recent government report concluded Banff National Park (Canada's first and the crown jewel of the national park system) is in serious danger of being over developed.

Other problems of particular concern in the North American Rockies include climate change and industrial pollution. In Canada, a series of warm winters has exacerbated a pine beetle infestation that now threatens more than half a million hectares of forest in British Columbia. And in the US, pollution from mining operations has produced serious problems in specific areas. The Colorado Rockies are badly affected by toxic mine tailings, for example.

Water management issues in the Rockies promise to loom large in years ahead. A preview has been provided by the controversy over the diversion of west-slope water in Colorado to feed the rapidly expanding "urban corridor" from Colorado Springs through Denver to Fort Collins.

Developing world

In the developing world, the great series of ranges, extending from the borders of Myanmar and China across northern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is beset by a long list of problems, says the report.

"The most severe examples of environmental and socioeconomic degradation, of course - now near total disaster - are the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, the Karakorum and western Himalaya (embracing Pakistan's Northern Areas), and the disputed territory of Kashmir," Dr Ives says.

"Military and repressive government actions together overwhelm the already serious problems of poverty, drought, deforestation, out-migration, and unfair treatment of mountain minority peoples."

In many places elsewhere through the Himalaya problems are brought on in part by quickening deforestation due to the growth of tourism and of forest-based industries (furniture, sporting goods and newsprint, for example). In the last few decades, an intricate network of roads has been built into the mountains, providing access to many previously remote areas.

Among other issues in the Himalaya causing environmental problems: overgrazing, accidental forest fires and rock quarrying.

While environmental problems in several parts of the Himalaya are serious and in some places severe, Dr Ives says their downstream impacts are "grossly over-simplified and exaggerated" by some governments as a way to divert attention away from far more damaging government-sponsored policies and practices.

"Logging, both illegal and government sponsored, dam construction in areas of high seismic activity and inappropriate reforestation programs are responsible for far more damage than that caused by so-called 'ignorant' subsistent mountain farmers," Dr Ives says. "The farmers are political scapegoats for downstream siltation and flooding along the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh, for example, portrayed as 'a relatively small number of irresponsible mountain farmers affecting the lives of several hundred million downstream dwellers on the great river plains'. This is simply not true."

Worldwide, the report adds, deforestation of the tropical rain forests is highly visible in the global media but the highest rate of deforestation occurs in mountain cloud forests - 1.1 percent per year, according to the FAO. Rates of clearing are particularly high in Central America, East and Central Africa, Southeast Asia and the Andes.

Source: United Nations University - International Year of the Mountains 2002

Related links:

Endangered mountain regions

Maps of the world's mountain ranges

United Nations University Mountains Photo Exhibit