Himalayan nations unite on climate

A week before 192 countries meet in Durban to attempt to find a binding climate-change agreement; four South Asian countries have come out with a regional cooperation framework to adapt to climate change.
Image by Birger Hoppe

Guest post by Tashi Dorji, a Thimpu-based journalist

A week before 192 countries meet in Durban to attempt to find a binding climate-change agreement; four South Asian countries have come out with a regional cooperation framework to adapt to climate change.

The declaration was signed by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu on Saturday at the Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas.

The four eastern Himalayan countries agreed to implement a 10-year roadmap on adaptation to climate change through regional cooperation in the fields of energy, water, food and biodiversity.

While a detailed implementation strategy still needs to be worked out, a mechanism to implement the “framework of cooperation” was agreed.

The regional framework aims to implement cooperative action to build resilience to climate change in the southern watersheds of the eastern Himalayas.

It aims to ensure energy security and enhance alternative technologies, protect the natural freshwater systems of the Himalayas, ensure security of food, livelihoods and biodiversity.

On energy, the framework agrees to strive for cleaner energy resources and technologies, explore opportunities and impact of regional connectivity for electricity and natural gas through development of a regional power transmission grid and regional gas pipeline, and enhance energy efficiency.

In the area of water, the framework hopes to encourage ecosystem management practices, promote traditional water-conservation techniques and modern methods to increase efficiency of use by sharing technology, and capacity building on water management.

And on food, attempts will be made to ensure an adaptive approach to improve and sustain food production, promote access to nutritious food for vulnerable communities and boost information sharing and capacity building.

The four countries also agreed to prioritise sustainable use of biodiversity for poverty alleviation and income-generation by promoting alternative technology and sharing information. They will also aim to secure connected landscapes for enhanced ecosystem resilience by creating a network of gene-banks to preserve genetic material.

Chair of the summit, Bhutanese prime minister Jigmi Yoezer Thinley noted the slow progress of global climate talks and said the regional move was a worthy precedent for other countries to act collectively.

He said: “Even as we fully commit ourselves to the prolonged and ongoing negotiations at the international and regional level, we want to act sooner than later,” adding “our lives and destinies are tied together.”

The organisers described the summit as a success, even though it was attended by environment ministers rather than heads of government as originally planned. In India’s case, not even the minister came, and the country was instead represented by environment secretary Tishya Chatterjee.

But in a post-event press conference (attended by only half a dozen journalists) director of the summit secretariat in Thimphu, Ngawang Norbu, said the achievement was no less solid for the lack of government leaders. “Heads of states have informed [us] that they haven’t underestimated the summit,” he said.

Norbu said the initial priority would be to look for funds from within the region to implement the identified projects and that each country would be welcome to float their own project ideas.

Describing the summit as “timely”, Tishya Chatterjee said: “For developing countries like us faced with priorities like poverty reduction and socio-economic development, this challenge is more than just about environment and has a direct impact on the daily livelihood of our people.”

The Bangladeshi environment minister, Hasan Mahmud, said that improper management of the water in India, Nepal and Bhutan would spell doom in Bangladesh, the only participant country that doesn’t have a geographical share of the Himalayas.

The newly appointed environment minister of Nepal, Hem Raj Tater, added that the main priority in the region was poverty alleviation and sustainable development, “and it can only be solved through sustainable and effective management of our resources.”

To carry the work forward, the four countries will nominate members of a coordination group. This group will meet on an annual basis or as and when necessary. It will also accept, review and approve projects and their funding proposals by consensus. Eligible proposals will include those relevant to all four partner countries.

The Himalayas, referred to as Asia’s “water tower” feed the continent’s seven largest rivers and account for 40% of the world’s freshwater. The summit was criticised in some quarters for not including China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The argument is that their absence will weaken the regional initiative and limit its effectiveness.

Bhutan’s prime minister used the summit to call for a new global economic paradigm to replace the conventional model of gross domestic product (GDP).  He said the new order should value natural capital, ecosystem services, and social wellbeing.

“We need to adopt a full course natural accounting system which will in all probability show us clearly that our economy is only as healthy as the ecosystem services and natural resources that sustain our life on earth and power our economies,” Thinley said.

The time to have a new economic paradigm “has never been better”, he said, arguing that Bhutan’s development philosophy of gross national happiness can become that new paradigm.

Tashi Dorji is the managing editor of Bhutan Times