Pema Gyamtsho from Bhutan took over as Director General of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in October 2020. He is the first person from an ICIMOD member country, or for that matter, from South Asia, to lead the inter-governmental organisation. Gopilal Acharya caught up with Pema Gyamtsho to learn about more about ICIMOD, its activities, and what the future holds for the Hindu Kush Himalayas.
You worked at ICIMOD before, and now you lead the inter-governmental body. How would you describe ICIMOD’s achievements of the past 36 years?
ICIMOD has come a long way since its establishment in 1983 [when] it was a small organisation charged with raising awareness on mountain-specific issues and challenges; piloting geographical information systems for the management of natural resources like land, water, and forests in the 1990s; and inventorying and monitoring glaciers and glacial lakes in the 2000s. It is now a well-established and globally recognised organisation working on the challenges of climate change.
I believe that ICIMOD has responded well to the current and emerging needs of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) and played a very important role in bringing the eight regional member countries (RMCs) to the table to cooperate on areas of mutual interest, exchange information and expertise, and link science to policy and practice. There is greater ownership of the Centre by our RMCs and a renewed interest to work together across borders to address the impacts of climate change and other drivers like globalisation, poverty and unforeseen natural calamities like the Covid-19 pandemic.
When I was here from 2002 to 2006, I conducted a review of the Centre’s twenty years of work and cited in conclusion from the report of the Second Quinquennial Review, which observed: “If ICIMOD did not exist, it would have to be invented.” I believe this holds true now more than ever as it is the only regional inter-governmental body that works exclusively on the challenges of the HKH mountains and people.
What are your immediate priorities?
My immediate priorities are to take forward the urgent actions outlined in the HKH Call to Action. These include concerted efforts to strengthen regional cooperation in addressing the impacts of climate change through our work on the atmosphere, cryosphere, rivers and water bodies, ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as to build resilience of mountain communities to geo-physical or socioeconomic shocks and disruptions like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Water is a critical natural resource both in terms of its availability for sustaining lives and livelihoods as well as its potential for destruction through extreme events. Building on the excellent platform already in place, it would be my endeavour to further sharpen the focus of our work on benefiting mountain communities as per the priorities set by the governments of our member countries and to promote its global relevance as a scientific knowledge and information centre on mountains and mountain peoples. I will also work closely with our current development partners and explore new sources of funding to strengthen ICIMOD’s long-term financial viability.
Resilience is at the heart of the development discourse today. Yet, the HKH remains vulnerable to numerous natural and man-made threats — from climate change to water-induced disasters to erosion of native culture to loss of indigenous knowledge.
Resilience is indeed essentially important for the people of the HKH region. One could reasonably argue that all ICIMOD’s work is aimed towards the goal of resilience building, since even the most technical or scientific work we undertake is meant to inform policymaking so that governments can help their people to absorb shocks better, improve their livelihoods and enjoy more prosperity.
But the threats you mention are very different — the threat from a natural disaster is very different from the kinds of threats that people face from the erosion of native cultures. Each of these threats needs to be understood in terms of all of its constituent elements to be able to understand and determine what an effective response might be. This is where ICIMOD’s role as a regional knowledge centre comes in. We generate and share information so that governments and people can make informed decisions about how to respond to threats. In some cases, one need not reinvent the wheel, but one can learn from the experiences of others in facing those threats.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Floods are a major threat to lives and livelihoods across the HKH. They need to be understood from the hydrometeorological perspective, so we support government hydro-met agencies in generating climate outlooks and advisories. Tragically, floods also take many lives every year and, to help prevent that, we also work on community-based flood early warning systems to help communities receive flood information in real time. There are some inspiring examples of upstream communities relaying timely and critical information to downstream communities during flood events through the use of these early warning systems.
So, our work includes the very technical science related to atmosphere and hydrological regimes, the very policy-oriented work with government agencies to support best practices in climate advisories, and the people-to-people work in supporting communities to implement tools that help in disaster risk reduction.
What exactly is the ‘HKH Call to Action’ that was recently endorsed by the eight ICIMOD member countries?
On October 15, 2020, which coincided with my first day as Director General of ICIMOD, a historical HKH Ministerial Mountain Summit with ministers from the eight HKH countries signed a Ministerial Declaration endorsing this HKH Call to Action.
This is the culmination of many years of work involving a large number of people. You may recall that in 2019, ICIMOD published The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: mountains, climate change, sustainability and people which is the first comprehensive assessment of this region. This publication addresses topics such as glacial melt, changing water regimes, climate change, poverty, food security and gender, among other things. As a part of the process of sharing this publication with policymakers in the RMCs, we undertook a series of country consultations focusing on what actions individual countries in the region can take in light of the report’s findings and also what actions countries could take together to address the shared issues and concerns.
This HKH Call to Action captures all those individual and joint actions proposed through the country consultations. It provides a roadmap for addressing critically important issues for the region, including deepening regional cooperation, acknowledging and prioritising HKH mountain people, taking climate action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees as mentioned in the Paris Agreement, accelerating action towards achieving the SDGs in the HKH, enhancing ecosystem resilience and promoting regional data and information sharing.
How has ICIMOD created and co-created new knowledge that is meaningful and useful to the fragile HKH mountains and their inhabitants?
Our HKH Assessment is a wonderful example of topical, co-created knowledge on the critical issues of our day. It was co-authored by 210 individuals (30% of these authors are women, and 80% from the region) representing 185 organisations. And as you can well imagine, this all did not happen overnight. It was a process that began with requests from the eight governments which are member countries of ICIMOD (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan).
Policymakers, media colleagues, and the public are all critically important constituencies as well, so as we launched the HKH Assessment, we also put together materials accessible to those constituencies and perhaps more importantly, we facilitated a process that now provides a clear roadmap for the HKH governments to take action based on the science. It is important to us that the scientific work translates into actions that benefit the people of the HKH.
One common criticism about ICIMOD is that a major chunk of its projects-related budget is spent in Nepal.
Since we are headquartered in Kathmandu, there is this perception that most of our programmes are Nepal-centric. However, this is not the case. ICIMOD makes a conscious effort to include as many member countries as possible in its programmes and initiatives. To this end, our approach to work through river basin and transboundary landscapes programmes ensures that more than one country is engaged and transboundary dimensions and shared concerns are taken into account. For example, the Upper Indus Basin Network brings together Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan. Likewise, the Kangchenjunga Landscape Initiative works with partners in Bhutan, India and Nepal; and the Far Eastern Himalaya Initiative covers parts of China, India and Myanmar. In the coming years, we will further enhance the mechanisms for partner-driven and partner-led approaches to planning and implementing our programmes.
Our transboundary landscape work also focuses on shared issues across individual country borders, especially related to biodiversity conservation and ecosystems services which is a pressing issue well highlighted in the latest IPBES Global Assessment Report which warns that one million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction. Since the HKH region is so biodiversity-rich and many of the people here are directly dependent on ecosystems’ goods and services, our work in sustainable management of natural resources is essentially important.
[With pilot projects across the HKH we seek] to provide knowledge and information that can also be useful to others outside the particular community in which the pilot is undertaken. We seek to “upscale” and “outscale” our Resilient Mountain Solutions approach, for instance. A recent workshop in rural China is a good example of how learning from sustainable livelihoods and ecotourism pilots in Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal can be relevant for communities living in the remote Gaoligong Mountains of China.
How has ICIMOD championed the voices of the mountains, especially that of the HKH region?
From the Rio Summit on Sustainable Development in 1992 to the Paris Accord on Climate Change, ICIMOD has played an active role in drawing global attention to the issues of mountains in general and the HKH region in particular. It is now an active partner in the work of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity besides many other global framework agreements such as the Sendai Framework Agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction.
ICIMOD is a unique institution in that we were established by the governments of this region and we seek to amplify voices from this region, whether that is working within global processes such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Global Landscapes Forum, or working within global alliances such as the Mountain Partnership, the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility or on mountain-focused publications such as the Mountain Research and Development journal, or within scientific alliances such as the Alliance of International Science Organisations in China.
What are some of the challenges that you foresee the HKH countries will face in the near future?
There are both persistent challenges and new challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is itself a challenge, but beyond the public health concerns, there have been dramatic economic, environmental, and social impacts of the pandemic and the restrictions to limit its spread. A number of months back, we had pulled together some of these impacts in a policy paper on COVID-19 impacts and policy responses in the HKH. The pandemic is not yet over, and some of its impacts have deepened, acutely so in tourism which is critically important for mountain communities.
We’ve seen a tremendous surge in medical waste during this past year, which contributes to pre-existing environmental concerns related to waste management, the negative impacts of single-use plastics, fossil-fuel dependent production processes, and the effects on drinking water. Although there were some moments during the lockdown periods where we saw reduction in air pollution across the region, those were short-lived.
So, concerns related to environmental degradation, habitat loss, air pollution, and climate change persist. And these are all issues where more regional collaboration will be beneficial. But we should also not forget about the very difficult issue of poverty in the region. Poverty is one of the drivers of other challenges such as food insecurity, malnutrition, and stunting in children. It is tragic that more than 30% of the mountain population in the HKH suffers from food insecurity and around 50% face some form of malnutrition. The incidence of poverty in the mountainous regions of the HKH countries is a full one-third of the population, which is higher than the national averages of these countries.
We should see this as an opportunity to renew our commitments to a kind of resilience that respects nature and our interconnectedness with it. A kind of resilience that doesn’t leave anyone behind, so that our prosperous future is an inclusive one. At ICIMOD, we’ve been talking with our partners about a green and resilient recovery for the HKH and that’s what we’re working towards as we prepare for COP26.
Cooperation between ICIMOD member countries is becoming more difficult due to the rise in tensions between them in the last few months. How will you handle this?
On the contrary, cooperation in the areas that ICIMOD is working on, such as mitigation and adaptation to climate change impacts, monitoring of atmosphere and cryosphere, management of transboundary ecosystems and river basins, and enhancing livelihoods of mountain communities, is well appreciated by our member countries and increasing.
You are the first person from South Asia to lead ICIMOD. Does this indicate a shift towards greater ownership of ICIMOD by these developing countries?
I feel deeply honoured and privileged to be selected as the first Director General of ICIMOD from the region. Perhaps my long association with mountains and mountain people, and passion and commitment to work on issues and challenges related to ICIMOD’s vision and mission, both at home and abroad, may have helped in my appointment.
There is definitely a growing awareness and commitment among the RMCs to engage in regional cooperation to address overarching issues like climate change, natural resource degradation, disasters and unforeseen exigencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of who heads ICIMOD. It will be my endeavour to build on the impressive credentials that ICIMOD has secured under the leadership of previous director generals and continue to work closely with international, regional, and national partners, not just on climate change but also on other socio-economic and ecological issues that the HKH region is faced with.