Maritta Koch-Weser says that the freshwater crisis must be tackled at source and outlines priorities for managing the ‘mountain commons’

Mountains are the source of 60-90 per cent of our freshwater, depending on where we live. Some of the 20th century equivalents of the pyramids were built to capture this water. As world population tripled in less than a century and as economies expanded, gigantic works of unprecedented proportions were undertaken to harness and store water for irrigation, energy generation and flood control.

We have inherited more than 45,000 large dams from the 20th century, as well as a myriad of smaller dams and weirs. We are also heirs to the social and environmental sacrifices required to construct them. Now there is a general wish to keep demand for additional, new dams to a minimum. Society should concentrate on maintaining the infrastructure we already have, and on optimizing returns from existing dams and reservoirs.

To care for our water is to care for mountain environments. The International Year of Mountains provides a timely opportunity to do so. We need to understand the scale and pace of upper watershed degradation: comparisons of satellite images over the last two decades reveal startling changes in most mountainous regions.

It is a story of unsustainability and of the acute need for environmental rehabilitation: large scale deforestation and soil exposure are visible from the Andes to the Himalayas. It is also a story of excessive greed and overbuilding related to tourism development and infrastructure – even in the Alps.

Upper watershed degradation triggers a syndrome of problems downstream: siltation damages riverine ecologies and leads to losses in reservoir capacity – at high economic cost. And there is an increasing dearth of water. Much of the world’s installed water storage runs empty or way below capacity. The Sobradinho Reservoir in Brazil – one of the largest in the world – dropped to 5 per cent of its capacity in 2001. And irrigation reservoirs are close to empty in Rajasthan along with an unending list of other dry spots on Earth. Low reservoir levels bring high economic and social costs. Electricity plants and irrigation systems cannot meet their production targets, and returns on infrastructure investments fail to mature. Water scarcity has increased so dramatically in some parts of the world that it threatens good relations between neighbouring nations, and thus peace.

Conversely, floods are growing both in frequency and in scale – from China to Mozambique, from Argentina to Poland – because the regulatory functions originally provided by vegetation cover in upper watersheds have been diminished. Insurance companies speak of annual natural disaster-related damage amounting to some $100 billion, much of it related to floods.

In the interests of sustainable development, we must resolve the dichotomy between building more concrete structures downstream and dwindling sources of water to actually fill them. And yet, most discussions at international water conferences are kept ‘in the valleys’, focusing on smart technologies and pricing. Little is said about mountains. They seem more intractable, posing complex social, political and economic problems that are hard to solve.

Upstream issues require holistic approaches to sustainable development – poverty alleviation, community-level environmental management, land tenure, education, women’s programmes, appropriate forestry and agriculture techniques, erosion control and the like. These challenges often occur in the world’s poorhouse. Mountain people have subsistence incomes at best, unless they happen to live and work in prime tourist destinations.

By contrast, downstream issues appeal to investors as comparatively straightforward and controllable. Project funds and private investments come more easily to the valleys – providing juicy contracts and keeping industry (and sometimes graft) alive.

The International Year of Mountains should particularly advance seven sustainable development themes:

1. Development of a ‘mountain commons’ framework: Mountains, like oceans, are commons. They provide regional environmental services to many, but are the direct responsibility of none. Negligence often results from unstructured accountabilities. Stakeholder-based associations, the assignment of responsibilities, and payments to environmental service providers are all preconditions for any lasting improvements in mountain stewardship.

2. Long-term vision: Many mountain environments are beyond sustainability. They are degraded badly, and nature needs to be restored. This is an urgent, but also a long-term task. Implementing it will require a ‘Mountain Decade Action Plan’.

3. Social organization – downstream: The diverse interests of downstream organizations make stakeholder collaboration along riverbasins complex. The great River Basin Associations – from the Mekong to the Rhine, Thames or Loire – attest to this. Interests must be calibrated to provide a basis for environmental service agreements with upstream communities. The need to achieve operative agreements is particularly urgent where the efficiency of downstream dams is at stake, or in areas prone to floods and mud-slides.

4. Social organization – upstream: Stakeholder coordination across adjoining mountain valleys is equally important. The upper reaches of rivers have a series of sources. To achieve tangible downstream improvements (e.g. to stem siltation or pollution), valleys would typically need to synchronize the upgrading of their environmental management practices.

5. Economic and legal compacts: There are a few precedents and only some first models for downstream-upstream cooperation. Methodologies for environmental service agreements largely remain to be developed. Live cases seem the only way to achieve what will eventually be replicable assessment tools for valuing upstream environmental services.

6. Regional pilots: the International Year of Mountains must go beyond theories and conferences to advance good practice in local applications. An attempt should be made to develop a small number of mountain commons management pilot programmes in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Priority should be given to cases with an urgent economic profile related to disaster preparedness and/or dam and reservoir maintenance.

Addressing mountain commons management will be easier within smaller regions, confined to a single nation. However this will not suffice in the long run. More than 120 of the world’s mightiest rivers traverse two or more countries, challenging nations to come together as citizens of shared eco-spaces in the interest of environmentally and socially sustainable development.

7. Advancing methodology – the International Year of Mountains Bishkek Mountain Summit. Issues sketched in this article will be discussed at some depth at this year’s Bishkek Global Mountain Summit. The Summit, which will be held in Kyrgyzstan, the country which proposed the the International Year of Mountains, is being coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in conjunction with an interagency task force, and with prominent UNEP engagement.

Water agreements, such as those for the Indus and the Mekong, are the work of generations. Upstream-downstream mountain commons management compacts require no less time. Collaboration and trust must also be grown over time in watershed protection.

The International Year of Mountains can only begin to address the mountain commons challenge. Many of its strands will require continuous effort for a decade and more

Maritta R. von Bieberstein Koch-Weser is President of Earth 3000.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles in other issues:
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources: Freshwater
Maritta Koch-Weser: Getting it together (Biological diversity) 2000

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report