Opinion: Nature-based solutions essential for future of the Himalayas

As the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss escalate, the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are well placed to draw on nature – and indigenous and local knowledge – in designing solutions
<p>Floating agriculture at Inle Lake in Myanmar (Image: Alex Treadway/ICIMOD)</p>

Floating agriculture at Inle Lake in Myanmar (Image: Alex Treadway/ICIMOD)

Since time immemorial, people around the world have been using nature to address major challenges they face in their daily lives: getting enough food and water; limiting the damage caused by climate-related disasters; and rehabilitating degraded environments so they can once again produce useful resources. ‘Nature-based solutions’ are thus not a new concept, and many are intricately linked to the knowledge and practices of indigenous people and local communities.

However, as the scale of challenges gets bigger in the face of climate change – with the Earth likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030 – nature-based solutions must be implemented with speed and at scale. Nowhere is this truer than in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

The term ‘nature-based solutions’ refers to a broad range of actions that are inspired and supported by nature, and are adopted to help address challenges people are facing as a result of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions as “actions to protect, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges, effectively and adaptively, providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits.”

Some examples of nature-based solutions already used in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region include floating agriculture in Bangladesh – a traditional practice that uses a floating raft made of naturally-occurring plant materials to grow vegetables in waterlogged areas; regenerative and integrated farming in northeast India which vitalises production systems while supplying food; creation of wetland habitats in China to address city flooding; and the harnessing of nature-based tourism in India to improve community livelihoods. These actions, while working to solve societal challenges, also provide co-benefits in terms of restoring biodiversity and reducing both the severity and impacts of climate change.

Responding to a growing crisis

As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment puts it, “over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history.”

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, not least because it is warming faster than the global average. Even if average warming were limited to 1.5˚C above pre-Industrial Age levels, temperature rise is predicted to be at least 0.3˚C higher in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

As this warming triggers upstream melting of glaciers, downstream areas face a multi-hazard and cascading risk environment, including glacial lake outburst floods, landslides and soil erosion. The region therefore needs solutions that can simultaneously mitigate warming, minimise disaster risks, limit damage to ecosystems and infrastructure, and enhance human wellbeing.

wooden building among trees
Village infrastructure made from locally-available natural materials in northwest Yunnan, China (Image: Bandana Shakya)

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region, with its abundant biodiversity, rich cultural heritage and associated traditional ecological knowledge and practices, provides immense opportunity for development of nature-based solutions. There are ample examples that demonstrate this potential, such as the use of native plants to help river banks to cope with unseasonal floods and landslides in Sikkim; and community-based bird photography tourism in Yunnan, China, which offers job opportunities in rural mountain areas while encouraging protection of birds and their habitat, along with co-learning between scientists, government authorities, citizens and the private sector.

Globally, there has been a general recognition of nature-based solutions as a crucial policy instrument to decarbonise economies, reverse ecosystem degradation, and build back better from the impacts of Covid-19. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, agreed at CBD COP15 in December 2022, stresses the importance of nature-based solutions in restoring ecosystem services and minimising the impacts of climate change.

True nature-based solutions require long-term investment, cross-sectoral planning, and engagement of a broad range of actors.

Nature-based solutions are highlighted as key adaptation measures in the nationally determined contributions – the pledges brought to the UN climate summits – of many countries around the world. The countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are picking up momentum in this regard. For example, nature-based solutions such as springshed management are highlighted in Bangladesh’s national adaptation plan aimed at addressing drought, water scarcity and landslides. In China, concepts like urban forest parks and sponge cities are gaining policy attention.

But implementing nature-based solutions effectively requires answers to some pressing questions: What kind of measures qualify as nature-based solutions? What are their desired benefits, and how can we measure them?

The IUCN suggests a global standard for the design and application of nature-based solutions. It outlines eight criteria: solutions must address a social challenge; be designed at scale; demonstrate biodiversity net gain; have inclusive governance; be economically feasible; balance trade-offs; consider adaptive learning; and build in elements of sustainability. This implies that true nature-based solutions require long-term investment, cross-sectoral planning, and engagement of a broad range of actors including policymakers, researchers, investors, practitioners and civil society.

Paving the way ahead for nature-based solutions

Three elements are fundamental to advancing nature-based solutions in the Hindu Kush Himalayas:

1) Nature-based solutions must be socially inclusive and should promote gender equality. Their design must engage indigenous people and local communities, considering their traditional ecological knowledge and development aspirations. Around 80% of rural communities in the Hindu Kush Himalayas are dependent on nature for their livelihoods, and unless they are designed to be inclusive and bring equitable benefits, nature-based solutions will not deliver co-benefits for nature and people.

2) Nature-based solutions must be co-designed with multiple stakeholders, including government, civil society, research institutions, international agencies, and the private sector. The UrbanByNature programme in China – a joint initiative by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and European Union to apply best practices in nature-based solutions from Europe – is a good example of global multistakeholder collaboration, with a focus on building government capability to collaborate with other stakeholders.

3) Long-term financing is key. Nature-based solutions become more effective over time, as growing biodiversity provides a wider range of goods and services to people such as food, timber, tourism, waste regulation and disaster mitigation. The long-term value and benefits of nature-based solutions must be communicated well, to make the case for them as investments. A framework to scale up such investment in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region – the Mountain of Opportunity Investment Framework – is being designed by ICIMOD, to help form alliances between investors and explore sustainable financing options.

Nature-based solutions must be implemented at speed and scale if the Hindu Kush Himalayan region is to simultaneously address the climate, biodiversity and development crises. This means that all eight countries in the region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan – must create enabling national policies to support implementation of nature-based solutions, with collective commitments and stronger public investments. And as many of the challenges these countries will face are shared – from melting glaciers to revitalisation of transboundary land and water ecosystems – regional cooperation to learn from and build on successes is going to be key to build nature-based solutions at the scale and ambition the Hindu Kush Himalayas need.

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.