Course:CONS200/2023WT1/Conserving The Hindu Kush Himalayas

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The Hindu Kush mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan


From the heart of Afghanistan, across Northern Pakistan, and into Tajikistan, lies the 800-kilometer-long the Hindu Kush Himalayas [1]. Because of the great changes in height, the Hindu Kush Himalayas exhibit a diverse diversity of habitats, from high-altitude settings to lowland tropical rainforest. Being home to a wide range of plant and animal species, it is one of the world's most biodiverse locations. The HKH is a source that helps both direct and non-directly. The Hindu Kush Himalaya is known as the “water tower of Asia” [2] because of its ample resource of freshwater to the surrounding countries. With rapidly disappearing glaciers, shifting precipitation patterns, and a surge in extreme weather events, the area is especially sensitive to climate change. Millions of people rely on the HKH, a complex and linked ecosystem, to maintain their livelihoods, mitigate the effects of climate change, and preserve life. It is important to acknowledge and value the distinctiveness of the HKH and to safeguard ecological services by stopping the loss of biodiversity and deforestation. [3]

Importance of the Hindu Kush Himalayas

The HKH mountain range in Asia divides the Indian subcontinent's lowlands from the Tibetan Plateau.

The Hindu Kush Himalayas is a water source that helps both direct and non-directly. The Hindu Kush mountains serve as a vital water tower, supplying water to areas that depend on rivers that originate in these mountains. The Indus and its tributaries are among the major rivers formed by the melting of snow and glaciers in the Hindu Kush mountains. [2] For a large portion of Asia, the Himalaya is crucial in maintaining the security of the food, energy, water, and environment. mitigate the effects of climate change, and preserve life. The Hindu Kush Himalayas maintain the environment by providing erosion control, timber, genetic resources, seed dispersal, disease regulation, clean air pollution, nutrient cycling, flood regulation, and provision of habitat. [4] The Hindu Kush Himalayas maintain security of food and energy through the ten significant rivers that support the production of food, energy, and a variety of other ecosystem services originate in the HKH and supply water. [3] With rapidly disappearing glaciers, shifting precipitation patterns, and a surge in extreme weather events, the area is especially sensitive to climate change. [3] Overall, the Hindu Kush Himalayas benefit 1.9 billion people in the mountains and downstream areas, and are used to maintain their livelihoods. [4]

Biodiversity in the Hindu Kush Himalayas

The HKM's variety of vegetation zones and forest kinds.
2 Red-tailed Laughingthrushs with the Indian Kush Himalayans region

32% of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are covered by parts of the four global biodiversity hotspots, which has an area of 1,362,402 sq km. [5] People are directly or indirectly dependent on their surrounding ecosystems in socio-ecological systems; forest, rangeland (alpine), farmland, and wetland ecosystems play a major role in the HKH in this context. Rangeland is the most common environment in the HKH; it is largely found in the western Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and supports numerous internationally significant flora and animals. [6] Plate tectonics has created distinct ecosystems with altitudinal variation, resulting in multiple microclimates and different biological gradients in the HKH mountains. The HKH is the world's youngest and most diversified ecosystem, with dramatic differences in flora, temperature, and ecosystems caused by altitudinal, latitudinal, and soil gradients. [7] Elevation, microclimate, and aspect variations all contribute to increased ecological diversity, resulting in forest gradients with altitudinal variation. The gradient from tropical (500 m) to alpine ice-snow (>6000 m) brings more ecosystem diversity, with a primary vegetation regime composed of tropical and subtropical rainforest, temperate broadleaf deciduous or mixed forest, and temperate coniferous forest, including high altitude cold shrub or steppe and cold desert. The diversity of ecosystem activities and processes provides individuals with a wide range of ecological advantages and options for sustaining their life. [8] [7]

Currently, there are 575 Protected Areas in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.[5] A Protected Area is a “clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”[9] The Protected Areas cover 40.17% of the region and account for 8.49% of the global Protected Area coverage.[5] Within the Hindu Kush Himalayas, 24% of Important Bird Areas (IBA) are represented within the PA system, with a number of 335 IBAs that have a total area of 861714 sq km. [5] Within the Hindu Kush Himalayas, there are over 35 000 plant species and over 200 species of animals. Between 1998 and 2008, there were at least 353 new species found in the Eastern Himalaya.[8] 242 plants, 16 reptiles, 16 amphibians, 14 fish, two birds, two mammals and 61 invertebrates were discovered.[8] The many differences in vegetation and biological circumstances are caused by the various microclimate created by the considerable differences in height, slope, and aspect from the mountain.[10] The various conditions of the mountain ecosystem cause many species to become compartmentalized from elevations between high and lowlands communities, which grant the area with endemic species who occupy different climatic niches that are spread over wider latitudinal belts[10] The Hindu Kush also forms the largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the poles, which is important for mitigating climate change.[3][11] Biodiversity is an important part of the Hindu Kush's identity, its biodiversity is integral to its community and to the world.

Ecosystem Services

The HKH's ecosystem services theme's reported trends throughout its several categories

Within The Hindu Kush Himalayas, there are many ecosystem services offered to its region. The Hindu Kush Himalaya region supports over 60 different eco-regions, and of the 1.9 billion people, 240 million people use the ecosystem services to sustain their livelihood.[8] A large amount of the population within the Hindu Kush region lives in poverty, and these people are dependent on provisional services from the region to survive.[8] Millions of people along the region depend on the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) region for a wide range of essential ecosystem services, making it an ecological treasure trove. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) conducted research that indicates the HKH region provides a number of functions, including as freshwater supply, climate management, biodiversity support, and cultural relevance. [11] Given that humans have heavily depended on these various ecosystems for things like food, housing, medicine, and other necessities, the social value of ecosystem services is crucial. [12] In many alpine places, transformational change has been made possible by the reliance on diverse ecosystems for subsistence livelihoods. For instance, Koshi Tappu, a Ramsar site in Nepal, has a community whose citizens depend on several ecosystem services to the tune of 85%. [13] Similar to this, throughout most of the HKH's rural areas, rangeland and forest ecosystems have offered a variety of ecosystem services. [14] The increasing amount of research makes it abundantly evident that, for rural communities that primarily rely on ecosystem services, the economic value of both marketed and non-marketed items is significant. While preliminary, one of the more thorough evaluations comes from Bhutan and is instructive. According to Journal written in 2013 by Klubiszewski et al. , the projected value of ecosystem services was USD 15.5 billion year, which is much more than the GDP of USD 3.5 billion annually. Of the overall benefits, 53% go to individuals outside of Bhutan and 47% go to those inside. The environment of the wetland is essential to many local reside.  For instance, 85% of the whole household income is generated by some wetlands. In certain areas, the supply of services by the wooded environment accounts for 80% of household income, making it an equally significant ecosystem. [8][15] The loss and reduction of ecosystem services in the Hindu Kush Himalayas can detrimental to its population.

Cultural Services

Bamiyan Buddha before being destroyed, Afghanistan 2001

Much of the population uses the Hindu Kush Himalayas in a cultural essence as well. Religion, traditions, aesthetics, and tourism all take part in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The Hindu Kush Himalayas have been recognized as sacred places of spiritual power and realization from many religions. [16] Religions acknowledging the Hindu Kush Himalayas are Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and the indigenous Bon tradition. [16] The most dominant cultural ecosystem service within the Hindu Kush is its large heritage of sacred natural sites. [17] Mountains, lakes, caves, rocks, meadows, forests and other parts of the landscape of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region are recognized as sacralized features. [17] Communities a part of religious practices come everyday to embrace animism or animistic elements. [17] Several sites have been recognized and cherished over generations by small communities and even by broader national, regional, and transitional stakeholders. Its history richness, cultural interpretations and aesthetics have visitors from all around the world.[17] The Hindu Kush Himalaya's biodiversity, diverse landscape, and cultural heritage promotes tourism across the region. [17] Scenic landscapes, lakes, mountains and forests attract tourists from around the world. [18]

Current Conflicts within Conserving the Hindu Kush Himalayans

Climate Change

Rescue workers in Shimla, India searching for survivors in landslide debris

Several environmental issues are affecting the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), and some of these issues are seriously altering and degrading the area. One of the clearest signs of environmental change in the HKH is the glaciers' rapid state of decline. The melting of glaciers has significant effects on the supply of water, especially for the major rivers that emerge in the Himalaya. Global warming and climate change are the main causes of this. [11] Another important issue with the Hindu Kush Himalayas is the decline in biodiversity, which is leading to extinction of certain plants and animals. Unplanned development, invasive species, and changing land cover are some of the biggest factors affecting ecosystem services, biodiversity, and human well-being. [5] One way that climate change is affecting the biodiversity are the changes in plant phenology and productivity. [5] One problem with the Protected Areas is that parts or entire mountains are not protected. [5]This is due to the fact that there are more species at a lower elevation, the threatened species richness decreases with elevation. [5] This is an important gap for the Hindu Kush Himalayas that has to be taken into account for the since high mountain habitats are hotspots for biodiversity that support a variety of endemic species, but they are also vulnerable to climate change.[19] It is expected that the mountain region will become more vulnerable to climate change[20]. Mountain populations rely on agriculture for support, and the results that come from climate change can leave devastating results for the population.[20] Altered rainfall patterns and intensity from climate change is generally believed to trigger mountain hazards.[21] The rise in temperature and increase in extreme climatic events like landslides can lead to loss of livelihoods.[20] Mountain hazards create huge economic losses, and often ends up hindering economic development for years.[21] Although the Hindu Kush Himalayan region's per capita fossil fuel CO2 emission is only one sixth of the global average, large quantities of short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon are released upwind into the into the Hindu Kush Himalayas, further increasing the effects of climate change.[21]

Lack of Attention

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its expanding global system, which includes adaptation activities and techniques in Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans, have a significant impact on government-led planned adaptation responses in the HKH[22]. The assessment[22] demonstrates that through a variety of policies, programs, and projects, all HKH countries have started to integrate adaptation to climate change. The vast majority of their national adaptation initiatives and programs focused on catastrophe risk reduction, increased information access for decision-making, climate resilient agriculture, and watershed management. That said, different levels of focus and attention have been given to mountain-specific adaptation challenges in national agendas.

Inequality and Exclusion

Women in the HKH region face multiple forms of oppression and exclusion which are overlooked by HKH countries. Current laws and policies do not allow proportional negotiaion rights in multiple settings such as households, communities and local markets. Resources and decision-making rights are not equally shared, even though women do carry similar workloads and responsibilities. The main cause of this could be related to the incorrect focus of policy-making as policies categories genders narrowly and have neglected the needs of women[22]. Women in the HKH region are assigned the role of fixing the environment given their voluntary efforts, yet they seldom enjoy the benefits of the policies.

Political Conflicts

A problem with conserving the Hindu Kush Himalayas are the physical barriers, policy differences across different countries and different drivers and stakeholders making decisions. [23] Physical barriers were put up to stop illegal immigrants from crossing countries on the China and Myanmar border, and on the India-Bangladesh and Myanmar-Bangladesh borders, prevent crime on the border of India and Myanmar, and defend against terrorism between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These barriers prevent animals from crossing these borders to obtain access to food, water, and other resources, and also dividing populations and habitats. [23] This could also conflict migrating populations that have to move due to climate change. [23] A diverse range of drivers and stakeholders make decisions and actions that operate at many scales impact the sustainability of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. [21] Various actions by drivers and stakeholders help in conflicting the conservation of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The increase in need for natural resources increases in tandem with local and socioeconomic development.[21] Along with population growth, these two factors are the ultimate driving force to overexploitation in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.[21] The problem with this is that the extraction of non-timber forest products strengthen food security, incomes, health, and sustainable health development. [21] Growing demands and increasing markets further increase the need for non-timber forest products, which can lead to unsustainable and illegal harvesting of non-timber forest products, one of the major problems happening in the Kanchenjunga landscape.[21] Conflict with tourism in the Hindu Kush Himalayas are that they typically poorly funded, which leads to poorly developed infrastructure like restaurants, camping sites, and recreational facilities. These poorly developed infrastructures end up having a negative impact towards the mountain ecosystem.[21]

How Can We Prevent This?

Current Remedial Actions

In alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Hindu Kush Himalayas Assessment Report has concluded nine priorities that calls for action and visions the future for HKH conservation. They include ending poverty in all forms, promoting safe and sustainable food production with focus on women's agricultural roles, achieving gender and social equity, ensuring secure sources of water for drinking, sanitation and production, allowing universal access to affordable and sustainable clean energy, pausing loss of biodiversity and degradation of land through sustainable management, ensuring the merging of climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, building mountains communities of resilience and inclusiveness, and advocating for a mountain-specific agenda.

Himalayan mountains visible due to improved air quality during COVID-19

Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out early 2020 caused a sudden halt in most human activities and the Himalayan ecosystem experienced a period of significant recovery with improvements on its air, water, and noise quality.

Across the region, air quality witnessed a dramatic improvement, with significant reductions in pollutants like particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). This respite from human-induced pollution brought air quality within permissible limits in all monitored locations. Similarly, noise pollution levels dipped by 20-30% due to reduced vehicular movement and industrial activity, falling comfortably within permissible ranges. The lockdown also had a positive impact on water quality. With industries closed and tourism curtailed, the discharge of sewage and wastewater into Himalayan rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Alaknanda, Manadakini, and Bhagirithi decreased significantly. This resulted in improved water parameters like total dissolved solids (TDS), alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, hardness, and dissolved oxygen (DO). The reduced human footprint also benefited wildlife. Animals were observed venturing out more freely, with reports of increased sightings and breeding activity. However, this period also raised concerns about potential increases in poaching activity, highlighting the need for continued vigilance in protecting vulnerable species.

The lockdown's impact on the Himalayan ecosystem was undoubtedly positive, still these improvements were temporary

Possible Outcomes


The "business-as-usual" projection for the HKH region anticipates significant climate change alongside moderate levels of social, economic, and political instability, as well as moderate ecosystem degradation. This trajectory essentially reflects a continuation of current trends[22]. Economic growth patterns remain largely unchanged, with businesses and industries primarily focused on achieving their economic goals. While some environmental and sustainability standards may be met, they will likely be limited to the minimum requirements. Cooperation between HKH countries exists, though the potential for collaboration across sectors and for achieving greater success remains unrealized. Recognition of the value of ecosystems, while present, falls short of widespread and comprehensive understanding. Despite some climate change mitigation efforts being implemented, their pace and effectiveness prove insufficient to meet the ambitious 1.5°C target established at the 2015 UNFCCC Conference of Parties 21 (COP21)[24] in Paris.


The most pessimistic projection for the HKH region envisions a confluence of severe climate change, deep social, economic, and political instability, and extensive ecosystem degradation[22]. In this downward trajectory, regional conflicts over increasingly scarce resources would intensify and proliferate. Existing inequalities would exacerbate, as communities remain isolated from expanding market systems and new opportunities for resource efficiency fail to reach institutions and individuals. Mountain livelihoods would stagnate, lacking the dynamism of inclusive growth powered by innovation, skill development, and sustainable practices. Ecosystems would suffer further deterioration, with biodiversity loss accelerating and mitigation efforts proving inadequate. Fossil fuels would remain the dominant energy source, amplifying the region's vulnerability to the worst-case scenario outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[25] – a global temperature rise significantly exceeding 2.0˚C.

Two Prosperous Futures

The first pathway, akin to a grand architectural blueprint, envisions the HKH harnessing its natural resources through mega-projects. Imagine imposing dams taming the mighty rivers, their hydropower illuminating homes and powering industries[22]. Envision intricate irrigation networks nourishing vast fields, eradicating hunger and transforming landscapes. This top-down approach, reminiscent of a South Asian Free Trade Area, promises regional economic integration and poverty alleviation. However, this ambitious vision faces formidable obstacles. Strong institutions are needed to navigate the complexities of inter-state collaboration and resource allocation. Robust communication channels must bridge the geographical and cultural divides. The potential environmental impact of large-scale interventions demands rigorous assessment and mitigation strategies.

In stark contrast stands the decentralized pathway, a mosaic of community-driven initiatives. Imagine farmer-managed irrigation systems quenching thirsty fields, spring water projects reviving villages, and local knowledge guiding sustainable resource management[22]. This bottom-up approach prioritizes self-reliance, empowering communities to become stewards of their own destiny and custodians of their cultural heritage. However, this path necessitates building robust local institutions and financial mechanisms to foster trust, ensure equitable resource management, and navigate the complexities of decentralized decision-making.

If global commitments to climate mitigation are not also maintained, regional development will not be enhanced by cooperative efforts on resource sharing. Pessimism was voiced in this context by experts and stakeholders interviewed throughout the production of this chapter. If properly carried out, the Paris Agreement can contribute to the realization of the affluent scenario. To put the qualitative paths and scenarios described in this chapter into numerical form, a top-down regional impact assessment model needs to be created. This lessens risks and enhance future decision-making. Specifically, two analyses can be performed: an economic analysis that determines the most advantageous and cost-effective course as well as related adaptation and mitigation expenses, and an emissions assessment of extensive actions[22].


The Hindu Kush Himalayas support a large population of 1.9 billion people.[4] Its ample source of freshwater, and other provisioning services maintain the livelihood of many. Its source of freshwater, food security, unique biodiversity, scenic views, cultural values, and regulative services are immense reasons to conserve the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Remedial actions were taken place, the UN Sustainable Development Goals created The Hindu Kush Himalayas Assessment report to call for action to improve the future of The Hindu Kush Himalayas. The emergence of COVID-19 had a beneficial impact on the Himalayan ecosystem. Air and water quality improved, noise pollution dipped, and wildlife were flourishing. Although there were improvements, it was only temporary. There is still the increasing threat of climate change and political conflicts destroying the livelihood of its population and environment. Without action, the downhill approach is the most possible outcome.


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