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Source: Small Island Developing States

With an estimated 50% of the earth’s population reliant on cryospheric sources of freshwater (rivers fed by glaciers, snow, permafrost and associated high mountain ecosystems), a UN-convened Summit has called for the establishment of an integrated ‘High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative.’  The Initiative, like other tools and approaches discussed at the Summit, is meant to address the escalation of climate change in high mountain ecosystems and its associated impacts on food, water and human security globally.

The High Mountain Summit, which took place from 29-31 October 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland, was organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and partners, with the aim of engaging decision-makers and local actors to enhance hydro-meteorological and climate services for disaster risk reduction, and better water resource management. The discussions drew on findings and recommendations from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate and featured case studies from the Himalaya-Hindu Kush and Tibetan Plateau region, the Alps, and diverse other mountain zones.

Among climate impacts, the discussions cited international observations showing an acceleration in the retreat of 31 major glaciers in the past two decades. Various presentations described how accelerated snow melt and retreating glaciers exacerbate hazards like landslides and floods in the short term, and pose a long-term threat to the security of water supplies for billions of people, including an estimated 1.1 billion people living in high mountain regions.

In one presentation, it was reported that Swiss glaciers have lost 10% of their volume in the past five years, including 2% in the past year alone, with an estimated 90% of the remaining 4,000 glaciers projected to melt by the end of this century, if climate change trends continue.

Other impacts highlighted in the discussions included the migration of species dependent on snow cover, degradation of pastures irrigated by glacial melt, declining snowfall on ski slopes, and a rise in glacial lake flooding, landslides and avalanches.

Summit participants issued a Call for Action, titled, ‘Avoiding the Impending Crisis in Mountain Weather, Climate, Snow, Ice and Water: Pathways to a Sustainable Global Future,’ aimed at identifying practical steps for enhancing the cryosphere, and fostering interactive dialogue between science, policy, governance and local actors. The outcome document expresses concern that water security is becoming one of the greatest challenges of the world’s population, with dwindling availability of freshwater from mountain rivers posing a significant risk factor for local and downstream ecosystems and affecting multiple livelihood sectors, including agriculture and food production, forestry, fisheries, hydropower generation, transportation, tourism, recreation and human health.

The Call for Action emphasizes the importance of ensuring that communities in mountain regions, as well as downstream, have access to hydrological, cryospheric, meteorological, and climate information services to help them adapt to and manage these threats. It further calls for strengthened transboundary cooperation in open data sharing, forecasting and prediction, policy development and knowledge generation and sharing.

WMO expressed its support for the proposed Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative, under its newly formed Commission for Observation, Infrastructure and Information Systems. The Commission aims to improve observations, forecasts and data exchange in mountain ranges and headwaters around the world.

The High Mountain Summit was co-sponsored by the World Bank Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and Swiss government agencies. Organizing partners included: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO); Global Water Futures; International Association of Cryospheric Sciences; International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development; International Network for Alpine Research Catchment Hydrology; Mountain Partnership; Mountain Research Initiative; Third Pole Environment; International Hydrological Programme of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); World Bank Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery; and World Bank Central Asia Water and Energy Program. [WMO Press Release] [Summit website] [UN News Press Release]

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