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 quenches thirst.

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 Mountains.

Glaciers shrinking at alarming rate

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.

For 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 international disputes.

Many water-use 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 worse.

United response is needed

"The challenges 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.