During the 4th Summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) at Kathmandu in August 2018, the host nation flagged Mountain Economy in the agenda for discussion. Consequently, the Summit Declaration acknowledged the importance of mountains and welcomed Nepal’s idea of promoting mountain economy among the BIMSTEC countries.
The Declaration also called upon member states to ‘ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their bio-diversity in order to support sustainable development’. This resonates with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to respond to the economic, social and ecological challenges confronted by the humankind and stimulate global, regional and community action.
At least three Targets under the 2030 SDGs specifically refer to mountains i.e. Target 6.6 aims to, by 2020, “protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes”; Target 15.1 aims to, by 2020, “ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and dry lands, in line with obligations under international agreements; and Target 15.4 seeks to, by 2030, “ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, in order to enhance their capacity to provide benefits that are essential for sustainable development.”
The SDGs address a variety of habited/uninhabited geographies and topographies such as oceans and seas, river basins and plains, mountains and hills, Polar Regions, and deserts and dry lands. The oceans and seas cover about 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, and the mountains/hills constitutes nearly 25 per cent. Furthermore, about 13 per cent of the global population lives on these heights. The mountain-hill regions host 25 per cent of biodiversity and 28 per cent forests. Glaciers in the mountains are the biggest source of fresh water for human consumption which flows through the rivers and provide 60% to 80 % of world’s fresh water needs. Interestingly, some countries such as Bhutan harness water bodies in the mountains for hydropower generation. In essence, the mountain-glacier-river-delta-sea continuum of South Asia-Southeast Asia is an integrated geography of immense environmental and ecological significance.
Although, BIMSTEC is a grouping of ‘littoral-extended littoral’ of the Bay of Bengal, these countries are blessed with mountains and hills. In particular, the Himalaya-Terai-Doi (HTD) crescent of Nepal-Bhutan-India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand is marked by a landscape of glaciers, mountains, hills and rivers. These, along with alpine forest, shrub and meadows, plant and animal species, form an environment-ecology ecosystem which is not only complex but fragile due to impacts of climate variations that are the catalyst for the melting of glaciers, flooding of rivers and destruction of natural habitats.
Besides, increasing human footprint in mountains and hills on account of urban development, recreation and resource exploitation has resulted in massive destruction and degrading of the natural habitats. These have adverse impacts on the goods and services generated by mountains and hills to support the SDG targets.
Geographically, the HTD crescent is a significant part of the BIMSTEC region, and the associated ecosystem is a significant driver for the ‘economic development, environmental protection, ecological sustainability, and human wellbeing worldwide.’ Ironically, there are not many collective initiatives in the HTD crescent which promote cooperation for conservation and sustainable development of the Mountain Economy, wellbeing of local communities which in turn would enable improved quality of life. Given the peculiar nature of the geography, challenges of connectivity and above all absence of a regional approach, Mountain Economy has so far not found reference in the regional development discourse. There is no denying that the HTD region not only merits special initiatives which synchronize and adapt to the SDG 2030 Goals, there is also a need to conserve ‘natural values and cultural heritage.’
It is thus not surprising that Mountain Economy was flagged by Nepal during the BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu. Significantly, it was decided to establish an Inter-governmental Expert Group to develop an action plan for Mountain Economy.
Mountain Economy is at a very nascent stage in the evolving discourse on politico-diplomatic, socio-economic, environment-ecology, techno-scientific and safety-security matrix of BIMSTEC. The member countries are yet to make any announcements in this regard, but appear to be committed to marshalling national resources to develop Mountain Economy. This can be achieved by capacity building programmes through partnerships, joint development programmes, and collaboration in scientific research and human resource training.
It is apparent that Mountain Economy is a cross-cutting discipline. It involves and needs collaboration among local communities, environmentalist-ecologists, river specialists, scientists and technology developers, policy-makers, corporate leaders, and entrepreneurs to understand and explore opportunities offered by an integrated approach to development of Mountain Economy under stringent sustainable practices.
In order to achieve the above, among the many initiatives that member states may plan, it is important to upgrade Mountain Economy in the national priorities. These can potentially disrupt the status quo for better predication of the health of glaciers and melting patterns, river flows, floods, ecosystem health as also by studying the impact of excessive connectivity.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.