ROME, 14 October 2002 -- The
supply of freshwater, recognized on this World Food Day as the
source of food security, is threatened by the increasing
degradation of mountain ecosystems.
Mountains are often called nature's water towers.
They intercept air circulating around the globe and force it
upwards where it condenses into clouds, which provide rain and
snow. All the major rivers in the world - from the Rio Grande to
the Nile - have their headwaters in mountains.
As a consequence, one of every two people drinks water
that originates in mountains. One billion Chinese, Indians and
Bangladeshis, 250 million people in Africa, and the entire
population of California, United States, are among the 3 billion
people who rely on the continuous flow of mountain water. Each
day, water from mountains turns hydro-electric turbines, aids
industrial processes, irrigates farmers' fields and
Yet, despite all who
depend on it, the future of mountain water has never been more
uncertain. The magnitude of this threat is one of the reasons
the United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of
Glaciers shrinking at
Some of the
freshwater obtained from mountains is stored in glaciers. Now,
because of the effects of global warming, many mountain glaciers
are melting at unprecedented rates. Runoff from the Quelcaya Ice
Cap, for example, has been the traditional water source for
residents of Lima, Peru. Over the past decade, melting of the
ice cap has increased from 3 to 30 metres a year, putting
freshwater at risk for 10 million people. In many other parts of
the world, glaciers have also been shrinking. In the European
Alps and the Caucasus Mountains, for example, glaciers have
shrunk to half their size, while in Africa an ice cap on Mount
Kenya has shrunk by 40 percent since 1963. If current trends
continue, by the end of this century many of the world's
mountain glaciers, including all those in Glacier National Park
in the United States, will have vanished entirely.
Threats from mining, forestry
"Mountains are a barometer of
global climate change," says Douglas McGuire, head of
the International Year of Mountains coordination unit at FAO.
"These fragile ecosystems are highly sensitive to
changes in temperature and because they are found on every
continent, many climatologists believe they are an early
indication of what may come to pass around the world."
Global climate change is just one of many
threats to mountain water. Other human activities, such as
exploitative mining and unsustainable forestry and agriculture
practices, are also taking a toll.
many countries, as water flow slows, growing sufficient
quantities of food will become increasingly difficult. In India,
for example, an estimated 500 million people already plagued by
water shortages depend on tributaries of the glacier-fed Indus
and Ganges Rivers. Scientists believe that as Himalaya ice caps
melt these rivers will swell -- before falling to dangerously
low levels and drastically reducing local farmers' capacity
to grow food.
"Mountain people are
often the first to feel the effects of environmental
degradation," says McGuire. "It is a sobering
fact that many of the world's 800 million chronically
undernourished people live in mountains."
Fighting over water
Water is a shared resource. What begins in mountain
watersheds trickles down into streams and rivers, meanders
across borders, flows into lakes, fills aquifers and,
eventually, empties into oceans. Worldwide, 214 river basins -
host to 40 percent of the world's population - are shared
by two or more countries. Too often, where there is need for
cooperation there is potential for conflict. In 1995, the
distribution of water from mountains was the cause of 14
disagreements arise locally between highlands and lowlands or
regions within a country. Mount Kenya, for example,is the source
of water for more than 2 million people in Africa. But in recent
years, farmers living in the mountain's highlands have been
using increasing amounts of water to irrigate crops. As a
consequence, downstream water flow has been severely reduced,
fuelling hostility from those whose survival depends on lowland
pastures, cattle ranching and tourism in wildlife parks.
As populations increase and demand for
clean water grows, the potential for conflict will only get
United response is
facing the world's mountain ranges and mountain communities
are as big as mountains themselves," FAO
Director-General Jacques Diouf said at the World Summit on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in September.
"The way forward, I believe, is to break the challenges
down into smaller pieces, smaller issues, and for each of us to
contribute what we have and what we do best. This requires
collaboration of all of us -- governments, UN agencies, major
groups and the private sector."
With those sentiments in mind, a number of countries,
United Nations agencies and international organizations joined
FAO in launching the International Partnership for Sustainable
Development in Mountain Regions. Although the partnership is
still taking shape, it is conceived as an evolving alliance
between groups and individuals around the world with the
flexibility to address the complexity, diversity and magnitude
of mountain issues.