“As glaciers disappear and snowlines move upwards, river flows are likely to change and lack of water may lead to conflict and affect hydropower generation, forestry and agricultural-based livelihoods,” said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources.
The services that mountain ecosystems provide often extend well beyond their geographic areas and include water balance, climate regulation, and maintenance of different species of plants and animals.
The main reason for climate change is increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions. Man-made global greenhouse gas emissions have grown markedly in the past 30 years rising by 70 percent between 1970 and 2004, according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are affected by global warming and mountain areas are highly susceptible.
In Bhutan, for example, glaciers are now retreating 20-30 metres a year with devastating effects downstream as a result of flooding, leading to loss of life, crops and pasture lands. The ice cap once known as the “sleeping lion” in the Andes of Peru has completely disappeared, resulting in intermittent or dry drainage channels causing herders to move grazing herds and increased concern for the future of irrigation, electricity generation and mining.
Higher temperatures as a result of climate change may also affect the health of both livestock and people, as malaria is likely to continue moving to higher altitudes as is already the case in East Africa and the Andes. For wild animals, a warmer climate may mean extinction as their habitats disappear.
Role of FAO
To date, climate-induced changes have led to adaptation through, for example, technological measures such as preventing the bursting of glacial lakes in the Himalayas or safeguards against slope instability due to permafrost decay in northern Europe. Mountain ski resorts in Europe and North America have started diversifying their services to compensate for the loss of winter tourism caused by the lack of snow. FAO is working with governments on watershed management and use planning and zoning for both mountains and lowlands as floods, landslides and avalanches are likely to become more severe and affect areas until recently considered safe.
In Bhutan, a National Climate Change Committee has been set up which will identify safe and unsafe zones for settlement in potential flood-affected areas. People in rural areas, for example, have been given radios as a basic early warning tool.
Measuring the effects on mountain areas
There is a growing need for more data and understanding at the regional and local levels of the impact of climate change and variability on mountain communities as well as on options for adaptation.
“FAO has a vital role to play in addressing the serious challenges confronting the vast number of mountain communities in developing countries who are often the poorest and most food insecure,” said Alemneh Dejene, Senior Officer, Environmental Assessment and Management Unit.
This and other issues concerning climate change will be considered by a high-level meeting on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy to be held at FAO from 3 to 5 June 2008.