Mountain Environment and Human Security Concerns

Sep 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Advocacy, Bhutan, Development and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Governance, Government Policies, Guest Speak, India, Information and Communication, International Agencies, Lessons, Livelihood, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Migration, Nepal, Opinion, Pakistan, Population, Poverty, Research, Resilience, Tourism, Urbanization, Vulnerability, Water

Vimal Khawas: Mountains form one of the most important bio-geographical resource zones of the world. They are remote areas covering 52 per cent of Asia, 36 percent of North America, 25 per cent of Europe, 22 per cent of South America, 17 per cent of Australia, and 3 per cent of Africa making up, in total, 24 per cent of the earth’s continental surfaces (Bridges 1990:260). They encompass some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes, a great diversity of species and habitat types and distinctive, tenacious and often disadvantaged human beings. 

They directly support the 22 per cent of the world’s people who live within mountain regions (UNEP-WCMC 2002:8). A further 40 per cent live adjacent or very close to mountain areas (CEE 2002) and are benefited from mountain resources in more than one ways.

Well over half the global population depends on mountain environments for a wide range of goods and services including for water, food, hydro-electricity, timber, biodiversity maintenance and mineral resources besides availing opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal. Up to 80 per cent of the planet’s fresh surface water comes from the mountains (Price 2002:72). Hence, mountains are very significant to human in a variety of ways. Scholars have often argued that the future security of the planet’s growing human population rests in great measure on mountain watersheds.

Mountains are, however, fragile resource zones and are highly susceptible to both natural forces and anthropogenic factors. Mountain people faces an environment where everyday physical demands are great, natural hazards are significant and agricultural production is constrained. Only about 3 per cent of land ranked as highly suitable for rain-fed agriculture is within mountains, highlighting the restricted livelihood opportunities available to many mountain people (UNEP-WCMC 2002:8).

Further, difficult access with socio-economic and political marginalisation often compounds the problems. In recent times many anthropogenic activities have been aggravating the natural setup of mountains. Studies across the globe have found that the health of the world’s mountains is in dire need of relief from modern anthropogenic activities that are causing lasting environmental damage and human insecurities (Eckholm 1975, Ives and Pitt 1988, Ives and Misserli 1989, Agenda 21: Chapter 13, 1992, Jodha 1995, 2005, UNEP-WCMC 2002, UN 2002).

According to analysis of the United Nations University, pressures from tourism, development, pollution, deforestation, climate change, and other forces is permanently eroding the landscape of many mountain ranges, with serious implications for society (National Geographic News 2002: February 1).  Some of the major consequences of these processes include water shortages and increased natural disasters such as landslides, avalanches, catastrophic flooding, soil erosion; loss of genetic diversity; armed conflicts; wildfires; high winds; and extremes of temperature and radiation among others.

‘War and natural disasters have long plagued mountain regions.  Researchers have determined natural disasters in mountain regions worldwide were responsible for almost 1.6 million lives lost between 1900 to 1988, the foremost causes being floods and earthquakes. Other figures show that combat in mountain regions – some 105 wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1995 – resulted in 11.1 million casualties, including 7.8 million civilians’ (UN News Release 2002: January 27).

Restoring mountain ecosystems, improving mountain people’s livelihoods, managing watersheds – and other aspects of environmental stewardship in mountain areas – will require long-term local and regional cooperative programmes between communities, private and public stakeholder associations, policy-makers and development financiers. Keeping in view the plight of the mountains across the globe in recent times, the United Nations designated 2002 as the International Year of the Mountains to draw attention to ecological degradation of mountains and promote policies that help protect the critical resources and services they provide.

Further, in view of their fragility and their overall significance as regulator of global ecological balance, scholars have argued that mountains deserve the level of concern afforded to other global ecosystems such as wetlands, forests and coral reefs.

The problems and constraints characterising mountain areas are varied and complex, requiring multidimensional interventions. Some of the major problems that have direct bearing on the human security in mountain areas and their geographical milieu may be listed and briefly discussed below:

Degradation of Environmental Resources

Traditionally mountains were identified as backward, inaccessible, and remote geographical locations inhabited by semi-civilized tribal people. Mountains were physically isolated from the mainstream society and economy and consequently from overall development paradigm.

Hence, mountain regions and the people living therein were physically, socially, economically, and politically isolated and excluded. As a result they were marginalised from the mainstream development processes. Although such features are still true in many mountain regions of the world, there are, nevertheless, plenty of instances where processes of development have gradually penetrated into these marginal locations in recent times exposing them to  variety of modern forces.

These so-called modern forces include tourism development, communication and other infrastructure development, unplanned growth of population both through natural process and migration from the lowlands, advent of modern technological tools, rise in consumerism, commercialization of mountain culture and economy, transfer of mainstream culture to mountains and gradual death of traditional/cultural institutions, and such other agents of modernity. The onset of globalisation in the last couple of decades further accelerated the process of integration of mountain economy and society to the mainstream.

Consequently, the fragile environment of mountains and resource bases therein got exposed to various uninvited forces that were not congenial to the health of mountain ecology. More so, the unplanned way in which the modern development arrived in mountains was far from acceptable to the intricate ecosystem operating therein.

Conflict and War

One of the greatest challenges of human security in mountain regions is the chaos created by conflict and war. Physical isolation excludes the mountains and populations therein from development, resulting in political and economic marginality often resulting into socio-cultural and ethnic conflicts in many cases.

In 1999, 23 of the 27 major armed conflicts in the world were being fought in mountain regions (Diouf 2002). Such locations as Afghanistan, Kashmir, Caucasus, and ‘Kurdistan’ are prominent in this regard but the so-called defensive stances, guerrilla warfare, the drug wars, and the systematic repression of mountain ethnic minorities (Ives 2002) are no less elements that have severely tested the human security.

Where there is armed conflict, lives become painful to the common people, as they cannot carry out fundamental life-sustaining tasks. The local ecology degrades due to conflicts with far reaching impacts making extremely difficult for the rural mountain people to practice agriculture. Often, soldiers or those who dominate the conflict claim what little food exists. In some cases, agricultural lands may be seeded with land mines, making the recovery from war a prolonged fight for survival. Unless the disaster of mountain warfare is effectively tackled, the prospect for sustainable mountain development over much of the mountain world is exceedingly grim.

The Issue of Sustainable Livelihood

Subsistence agriculture was the mainstay of mountain communities for long. However, with the advent of modern development paradigm and penetration of market forces things are changing for bad in several pockets of mountains. People living in and around urban centres have access to many of the modern technologies and other parameters of development. Gradually, their perception about life has been changing.

They have already started to think in a more commercial ways than their forefathers who otherwise thought at subsistence levels. In remote, rural and inaccessible areas too situation is changing with time. With the rapid growth of people there are no adequate food supplies. Agriculture is yielding less due to several natural and man-made challenges. Land, water and forest resources are getting scarcer with increased intensification of resource use.

Further, ‘human pressures on mountain resources has led to both intra and international conflicts between highland and lowland, perhaps most notably in south Asia where subsistence farmers in the Nepal Himalaya have been blamed by India and Bangladesh for flooding, sedimentation and stream channel shifting in the Ganges River Plain and Delta’ (Ives and Messerli 1989: 295).

Institutional and Policy Gap

For long mountains were not seen by the governments as a separate and unique geographical unit of the earth needing different institutions and policies to govern them. Institutions and development policies of the mainstream ‘prime locations’ were extended to the ‘marginal locations’ like mountains and consequently several environmental and socio-cultural problems were invited.

Although developed world recognised the prevailing lacuna in their governance much earlier and have been trying to address the same through alternative institutions and policies measures mountains of less developed countries are still at the mercy of mainstream institutions. Development polices and programmes have consistently failed to identify and address needs of the mountains and aspirations of the people therein.

Even when attentions have been given, mainstream approaches have at several cases proved inappropriate and thus have resulted many adverse impacts on the socio-economy and environmental set-up of the region.  It is important for the development planners and policy makers to understand that mountains demand an individual approach. This becomes essentially imperative because the effects of slopes and elevation of mountains add a unique dimension to the challenges in addition to such constraints present in the lowlands.

Inadequate Knowledge Base

Understanding of mountains and the intricate linkages between physical and socio-cultural dynamics are still limited to indigenous people of the mountains and few others outside the mountains. There is an appreciable gap in knowledge bases with respect to the socio-economic characteristics, traditional-institutional and ecological processes operating in mountain areas.

Further, no serious and systematic attempt has been made to understand the various fallouts of modern development in mountain regions, like climate change, pollution, armed conflict, population growth, resource degradation, changes in agricultural patterns and practices, mining, unplanned tourism development, urbanisation and associated infrastructure development etc. and their impact on the overall environmental and human security.

Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 (1992) has identified persistent knowledge gaps in the understanding and delivery of sustainable mountain development as an area of great concern. Therefore, a far greater effort needs to be invested in order to understand various challenges faced by mountains in near future. Further, there is need for a more robust and science based research than a mere media reporting and popular write-ups based on assumptions and suppositions in order to have sufficient and authentic database for effective policy formulation.

Table:  Important Parameters of Human Security / Insecurity Shared by Mountain Regions at Global Level

Sl. No.


Global Value (%)
1. Area defined as mountains of global land* 27.2
2. Population distribution 21.9
3. Endangered Languages worldwide that occur in mountain regions** 28.0
4. Terrestrial precipitation worldwide falling in mountain region*** 24.0
5. Forests worldwide occurring in mountain regions 23.0
6. Susceptible area worldwide that occurs in mountain regions**** 31.0
7. Fires worldwide that occur in mountain regions 24.0
8. Severe climatic change# simulated worldwide 23.0
9. Area converted to agriculture worldwide that occurs in mountain regions 16.0 (to cropland) 21.0 (to grazing)
10. Suitable area (for agriculture) worldwide that occurs in mountain regions 03.0
11. Deforestation  (1992-2000)@ 01.3
12. High impact land worldwide (from infrastructure development) in mountain areas for the year 2035 24.0
13. Area within the radius of a war worldwide that occurs in mountain regions## 32.0
14. Area worldwide with three or more severe pressures that occurs in mountain regions 24.0
15. Protected area worldwide that occurs in mountain regions$ 32.0


* Also includes Antarctica; ** here defined a 1-100 speakers; ***Antarctica not included

**** Destructive` earthquakes (level VIII or greater on the modified mercalli scale)

# Severe climate change is defined as areas where either temperature increases by more than 2.5o C or precipitation decreases by more than 50mm/yr by 2055m averaged for the five GCMs.    

@ Data refers to percent changes in mountain areas only.

## A war is defined as a conflict in which at least 1000 battle deaths a year occurred for at least 1 year between 1946-2001.

$ The percentage of protected area that occurs in mountain regions is slightly larger that the percentage of the total global area defined as mountains (27%).

Source: Compiled from: UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Mountain Watch, 2002 (various chapters). References may be provided on request


Author: Dr Vimal Khawas has written this article for Climate Himalaya’s Guest Speakers Column. Dr. Khawas is Associate Fellow at the School of Policy Planning and Studies, Sikkim University,  Gangtok, Sikkim, 6th Mile, Samdur, Tadong- 737102, Sikkim, India Tel: 91-3592-251004; Cell: 9474583726  Email:

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.


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One Comment to “Mountain Environment and Human Security Concerns”

  1. Pabitra says:

    A very comprehensive article Dr. Khawas. Of all the major problems concerning security of mountain people, IMO, is the gap in Knowledge base and it is ironical the share of this ignorance is almost equal between mountain and non-mountain societies. I would like to add another aspect of this short coming. Whenever a particular global ecosystem’s decline is identified, there is a popular activism to demand sectoral and ecosystem specific solutions and unfortunately such demands have histories of politics attached to it. What goes less acknowledged is that as far earth is considered, no such ecosystem function in isolation. In a way a coastal ecosystem and a mountain one are only sub-systems of a greater ecology. We see the same pattern of abuse to all of them and the common denominator is humans and their interaction with the environment.
    I look forward to more of your insight. Thanks.

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