“Mountain communities must be able to pursue their well-being”

More than 900 million people worldwide live in mountain regions. Between 60 and 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water originates in mountains. Mountain regions are also economically important, attracting 15 to 20 per cent of global tourism. Organizers of the Mountain Partnership believe that’s reason enough to raise public awareness of sustainable development in mountain regions. They have chosen #MountainsMatter as the theme for this year’s International Mountain Day. CDE researcher Susanne Wymann von Dach explains – and highlights current opportunities for mountain regions.

Susanne Wymann von Dach
Susanne Wymann von Dach © Manu Friedrich


Interview: Gaby Allheilig

The theme of International Mountain Day 2018 is #MountainsMatter. That makes it sound as if mountains have been forgotten by policymakers and the public. The UN 2030 Agenda mentions mountains explicitly – so what’s behind this call for greater focus on mountains in the context of global sustainable development?

Mountain regions are indeed explicitly mentioned in three targets of the 2030 Agenda. But these targets mainly refer to the significance of mountain ecosystems for global sustainable development – for example, mountains’ rich biodiversity, and their role as water suppliers or providers of other services important to people in mountains and in the lowlands. What the 2030 Agenda doesn’t reflect is this: Around 13 per cent of the world’s people lives in mountain regions, and the number of mountain dwellers continues to grow...

… by how much?

The world’s mountain population increased by about 16 per cent between 2000 and 2015. While growth varies from country to country, this means that increasing numbers of people must share the often limited natural resources in these regions. So it’s no surprise that the share of people suffering from poverty is higher in mountain regions than elsewhere. In addition, people living in mountain areas typically have fewer opportunities for economic and personal development, since these areas are often remote and hard to reach. That’s why the theme #MountainsMatter is particularly meant to draw attention to the living conditions of people in the mountains. Their opportunities for sustainable development must be expanded and promoted.


“It’s important that these areas have a strong voice.”


The Mountain Partnership has compiled an extensive list of key issues for sustainable development in mountain regions, ranging from biodiversity loss, poverty, and migration to climate change impacts. But other regions face many of these challenges as well: the tropics, arid regions, island states...

That’s correct. But it’s not a matter of pitting different regions against one another. They are all confronted by developments over which they have limited control on their own. That’s why it’s important that they have a strong voice. Small island states formed an alliance as early as 1990. Thanks to this alliance, for example, they now have more weight in global climate negotiations – more than if they negotiated individually. Arid regions can rely on the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. While this agreement only covers some of the challenges facing those regions, it’s still important.

But still, the question arises: What is so special about mountain regions, or what makes them so different from other regions?

A very obvious specificity of mountains is their topography. It makes mountain regions more difficult to access and more expensive to develop. In some countries, their remoteness means that mountain populations are underrepresented in policymaking and have little influence on decisions about the future.


“Changes in the mountains can have a direct impact on surrounding lowlands.”


And then there are changes in mountains that can directly impact downstream areas – for example, in the context of water supply or natural hazards. Climate scenarios show that the temperature in the Himalayan region could rise by up to 5.5°C by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate. That’s enormous. Rapid increases in glacier melt will have serious consequences for areas along the lower reaches of major rivers, especially in arid or semi-arid regions. This is the case in the Indus Basin, for example, where 50 to 90 per cent of river water comes from snowmelt or glacier melt.

Mountain regions are disproportionately affected by global warming. Doesn’t this also create opportunities, from a local perspective?

Indeed, in some areas, and under certain circumstances, warmer temperatures might enable increased agricultural production.


“The fact that conditions vary greatly over short distances often leads to impressive diversity.”


But there is another factor that creates opportunities for mountain regions: the fact that conditions vary greatly over short distances. This has often fostered impressive diversity – whether ecological, social, or cultural. This, in turn, has led to locally adapted developments. Economically, however, for many people, one source of income is not enough to make ends meet, and they have to secure their livelihood by combining various economic activities.

What issues most require urgent solutions at this point?

That’s for the people concerned, together with the respective local and national authorities, to clarify. It can’t be decided universally for all mountain regions. Indeed, urgent issues can be very specific to individual regions: A study we conducted in 2018 together with our partners in five countries – Ecuador, Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, and Switzerland – showed that the goals of the 2030 Agenda are prioritized differently in each country. Poverty reduction is a salient issue in Nepal and Uganda, while water management is a top priority in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, Switzerland places emphasis on improving and securing income opportunities, for example by promoting sustainable tourism (see box).


“There are some commonalities, but priorities must be set locally.”


So you’re saying that mountain regions around the world hardly share common priorities?

No, they do share some priorities. The majority of local specialists and authorities agreed that nearly 30 of the 169 targets in the 2030 Agenda are key to sustainable development in most of the five countries’ mountain areas. They include issues like sustainable management of mountain forests and water resources, or biodiversity conservation. Mountain people’s ability to adapt to climate change is likewise regarded as crucial. In brief, there are some commonalities, but priorities must still be set locally and together with the population.

In your study, you also highlight the need for more coordination among mountain regions to help them gain strength in international agreements and networks. What do you have in mind exactly?


“You have to invest in local value creation.”


International agreements are always a means of triggering and guiding developments. If mountain regions succeed in jointly becoming more visible and raising awareness of their situation, this can only strengthen their bargaining power – both internationally and regionally. But when it comes to each individual region’s development, it’s essential to look closely at the specific situation. Our study showed that local-scale spatial data are often lacking – either because they were never collected or analysed, or because they aren’t accessible. But if we want to seize the opportunity and co-design adapted development strategies together with local populations, we absolutely need reliable data on social and economic conditions as well as on land use. There is a lot of catching up to do here.

Where do you see further opportunities for sustainable development in mountain regions?

One approach that I consider promising is the idea of promoting small local centres that offer income opportunities and jobs outside agriculture. This would include developing local markets and investing more in value creation, education, and innovative ideas. If, for example, local small- and medium-sized enterprises could at least partially process raw materials directly in the region, that would already be a big step forward.

Leaving no one in mountains behind

Wymann von Dach S, Bracher C, Peralvo M, Perez K, Adler C. 2018

Leaving no one in mountains behind – Localizing the SDGs for resilience of mountain people and ecosystems. Issue Brief on Sustainable Mountain Development. Bern, Switzerland: Centre for Development and Environment and Mountain Research Initiative, with Bern Open Publishing.

Sustainable development in mountains and the 2030 Agenda

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals offer a useful framework for assessing sustainable development in mountain regions and devising strategies for its promotion. In a Working Paper, scientists at CDE and the Mountain Research Initiative discuss gaps in data on sustainable development in mountains and propose possible ways of addressing them.