Opinion: The Hindu Kush Himalayas need institutions for better cooperation

Himalayan countries can look to the Arctic Council, Alpine Convention and the Carpathian Convention to build multilateral cooperation mechanisms, advises the director-general of ICIMOD
<p>(Image: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD)</p>

(Image: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD)

On 15 October 2020, representatives from all eight governments of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) signed a declaration at the Ministerial Mountain Summit. All ministers accepted individual country-level and common priorities to sustain mountain environments and improve livelihoods in a HKH Call to Action document. These priorities were generated from a series of dialogues held in each of the eight HKH countries, which drew on science from the 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report and sought to link to policies both in the individual countries and those that would be regionally appropriate.

In their October 2020 declaration, the ministers agreed “to constitute a Task Force with high-level representation from the eight HKH countries to assess the feasibility of establishing a regional institutional mechanism. The Task Force should assess similar regional collaborative platforms/institutions from different parts of the world and recommend a feasible configuration for the HKH region in a report to be submitted to the next HKH Ministerial Summit.” The next meeting is due to take place in May next year.

The task force was set up and has met six times. It has started to assess the feasibility of establishing a regional institutional mechanism, which will be captured in a draft recommendation report. The task force members also visited the Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention and the Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention in mid-2022 to learn about other multilateral cooperation mechanisms and their administrative processes and logistical matters.

As environmental pressures grow across the HKH region, it has never been more important that progress on a multilateral cooperation mechanism continues. 

Urgent need for transboundary cooperation in the HKH

The effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution across the HKH region are not contained within countries’ political boundaries but are transboundary in nature. For the region to reverse or even absorb the impacts of these crises, it is imperative to shift from national perspectives to broader thinking that encompasses eco-regions and is transboundary. The challenges faced by the countries of the HKH are common in nature and common approaches are therefore required to address them.

Explained: The planetary crisis and the Hindu Kush Himalayas

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is the highest mountain system in the world, hosting a high-density population and extending 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. Mountains are unique geographies due to their upstream-downstream interconnectedness: the rivers originating from HKH high-altitude glaciers support the lives and livelihoods of nearly two billion people on the floodplains. An incredible diversity of flora and fauna adds to the beauty of these majestic mountain ranges as well as providing a range of ecosystems services.

The triple planetary crises – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – are amplified in this region with clear visible impacts. The 2019 publication of the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report synthesised up-to-date science on the region across topics such as water availability, air pollution, disasters, glaciers and poverty. An overarching concern highlighted by the report is the vulnerability of the HKH region to climate change. A global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels will mean an additional increase of 0.3-0.7C in the HKH. Meanwhile habitat loss and mass extinction of endemic species is leading to biodiversity loss, and pollution is threatening human populations’ health and well-being.

Disasters like riverine and glacial lake outburst floods have transboundary implications, for example. Regional cooperation can be instrumental in reducing the negative impacts. Small-scale bilateral cooperation specifically aimed at flood risk reduction is underway in places like the Ratu River, which flows between Nepal and India. But in the face of increasing extreme weather events projected as the climate changes these efforts are too scattered and ad hoc.

Transboundary cooperation in sectors like renewable energy will provide valuable economic resources for individual countries while also reducing carbon emissions and lowering air pollution across the region. For instance, one study found that hydropower investment in a South Asian transboundary river basin is projected to yield benefits that are 30 times the cost. In transport, trade, tourism and infrastructure countries in the region can develop upstream-downstream linkages and maximise the collective benefits from sustainable development.

As all HKH countries are currently prioritising infrastructure development, this is a key moment to consider the benefits of regionally coordinated planning and development for cost-effectiveness and sustainability. Huge investments in downstream countries are at risk from climate-induced and natural disasters, making coordinated upstream-downstream cooperation in risk reduction and benefit-sharing vital.

Look to mechanisms set up by other mountain regions

As we consider how to scale up regional cooperation, there is much to learn from ongoing multilateral cooperation mechanisms established by mountain countries in other parts of the world such as in the Alps, Carpathians and the Arctic.

The Arctic Council, the Alpine Convention – both consisting of eight countries, like the HKH – and the Carpathian Convention are examples of effective regional cooperation mechanisms and are models the HKH could draw on. These institutional mechanisms were explicitly established to enable increased cooperation on environmental protection and sustainable development.

The Alpine Convention was the result of more than four decades of work. The Carpathian Convention received significant help from the UN Environment Programme and Alpine Convention in forming its own regional institutional mechanism. The Arctic Council follows similar processes and was formed on the basis of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy.

The Alpine and the Carpathian conventions are legally binding and are guided by framework conventions. The parties have signed multiple protocols on issues related to environmental and cultural protection, sustainable development, and transport management, among others. On the other hand, the Arctic Council is non-binding and is guided by a declaration signed by the parties. It has agreements and strategies focused on protection of the Arctic environment and its indigenous communities; conservation of the Arctic marine environment; and emergency prevention, preparedness and response.

These institutional mechanisms have facilitated cooperation between countries on environmental protection, cultural and natural heritage conservation, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, providing formal mechanisms through which the regions’ voices are unified and strengthened on the global stage. The HKH region can define its own institutional structure and mandates to suit countries’ needs.

Unity needed in the build-up to COP27

The urgency of environmental issues in the HKH region is evidenced by disasters such as the recent floods in Pakistan and the 2017/18 floods in Nepal and India that killed hundreds of people, as well as ongoing problems such as air pollution, erratic rainfall, heatwaves, and environmental degradation.

The HKH region is not equipped with financial and technical resources to overcome these impacts and bounce back. The total cost of climate mitigation for six HKH countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan – is estimated at USD 1,085 billion, while the estimated cumulative cost of adaptation is USD 270 billion, as outlined in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions. Regional experts have long been calling for global support and collaboration in technical exchange, knowledge generation and financial investments to increase the resilience of the HKH region. A broad regional framework of cooperation that identifies specific opportunities at this moment of development in the region would be an encouraging signal to governments and institutional investors to identify the best opportunities for engagement.

Mountains as a specific geography have not gained the traction they warrant, in contrast to the unified voice of the Small Islands Developing States

Through global frameworks such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – to which all the countries of the HKH are parties – the benefits of global cooperation are clear, but mountains as a specific geography have not gained the traction they warrant. In contrast, the unified voice of the Small Islands Developing States, through an alliance in the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), has resulted in conducive policy formulation and strengthened their collective negotiation.

As the countries in the HKH region prepare for this year’s UNFCCC and CBD COPs, a regional and unified approach would attract global attention and climate finance, helping the region manage its responses to the triple planetary crises we face with the urgency and scope required. 

This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are their own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.