Eighteen people, representing seven small mountain countries, gathered on 8 December at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris to discuss glacier retreat and its consequences. They reviewed the issues that they considered most serious and considered the possibility of forming an international organization of glacier countries.
This meeting included representatives from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway; among them were country negotiators at the COP21, leaders in national agencies and NGOs, and officials within bilateral aid organizations, as well as academics and one UN official. It was organized by Ben Orlove, the managing editor of GlacierHub, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the working group of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia. He attended COP21 as an official observer of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
The meeting was facilitated by Miguel Saravia of CONDESAN, the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, who facilitated the access at the COP site to Peru’s office suite. This facility, available to the Peruvian delegation and their guests, provided a haven of quiet and privacy, conducive to discussion and reflection, within the bustle of the COP. It drew on the suggestions of the representatives of the glacier countries, expressed in prior conversations and meetings with Orlove in the months leading up to the COP; in the days before the 8 December meeting, delegates from Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, whose schedules impeded participation in that meeting, offered a number of ideas that were included in the discussion there.
The impetus of the meeting came from examples set by other organizations that bring together countries sharing common climate change impacts. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Arctic Council, and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations. Another such group, the Delta Coalition, which was announced at the COP on 2 December, links 12 countries to make deltas more visible in global policy discussions, establish partnerships, and undertake concrete actions in order to increase resilience in these regions.
Though the sense of the meeting was that further discussion and study was needed before a Council of Small Glacier States or some similar organization could be established, the group achieved a number of positive steps: examining possible activities for such an organization, conducting a ranking exercise of concerns, reviewing cases that could offer suggestions for the organizations, and establishing concrete action steps to take before the next meeting of the group.
At the outset of the meeting, the participants agreed on the great breadth of possible activities for an organization of glacier countries. Eric Nanchen of the Swiss-based Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions spoke of “knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building,” to which Rasmus Bertelsen of Norway’s University of the Arctic added “policy-shaping networks.” The social actors within the countries similarly ranged broadly across government, universities, local communities, civil society institutions, and businesses.
The participants also recognized a variety of structural forms. Emphasizing the value of drawing on existing efforts, Andrew Taber of the Mountain Institute (TMI) argued for inclusion within larger mountain organizations, such as the Mountain Forum or the Mountain Partnership, within which TMI has a leadership role. Others, such as Benjamín Morales Arnao of Peru’s National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, underscored the distinctiveness of glaciers, with their close association with climate change; Firuz Saidov and Anvar Khomidov of the Tajikistan Committee for Environment Protection indicated the specific issues of water resource management and hazards faced by glacier countries at the headwaters of international watersheds. Summarizing this discussion, Thinley Namgyel, Chief Environment Officer of the Climate Change Division of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, emphasized that any new group would “not want to duplicate” existing efforts.
As a first step to provide focus, Orlove led the group in a ranking exercise. The participants reviewed an initial set of glacier-related issues and added other issues to the list. Each one then allocated five points across these issues, giving no issue more than two points. Three issues—hydropower planning and water resources, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems, training and human resource development—all rose to the top. The other issues—reduction of black carbon, tourism planning, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and outmigration from mountain areas—received much smaller numbers of points. The rankings from the Asian and Latin American delegates were quite close to those of the European delegates.
With these issues in mind, participants offered examples of prior activities. Jorge Recharte, the Andes Program Director of TMI, discussed an exchange program which linked Peru, Nepal and Tajikistan: researchers, government officials and community members formed committees to plan for early warning systems and risk reduction for glacier lake outburst flood hazards. He pointed to the great potential of incorporating local knowledge into research and adaptation, though he also reminded the group of the challenges of assuring ongoing funding—a point that others recognized. Muzaffar Shodmonov of the Tajikistan State Agency for Hydrometeorology spoke of coordination of glacial monitoring across a number of countries. Bertelsen suggested that the group consider as an example the University of the Arctic, based in Norway’s Tromsø University. This university links a number of other universities in countries within the Arctic Council, and has served effectively to develop and apply knowledge. He suggested that the emerging plans of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to develop a Himalayan University Consortium might be a similar center; Orlove suggested that it could be linked to the University of Central Asia. Matthias Jurek, an Austrian involved with the United Nations Environmental Programme, also mentioned a number of programs that draw together research and adaptation efforts in different glacier countries, including UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program. Like Bertelsen, Jurek suggested points of overlap between glacier projects and polar endeavors—linking glaciers to the global cryosphere as well as to mountains. This connection had also been raised by Pam Pearson of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who spoke with several participants moments before the meeting but who was unable to attend due to prior commitments.
As the meeting progressed, the discussion shifted to concrete action steps. Namgyel’s emphasis on the need for additional work underscored this direction. Jurek proposed a mapping exercise to develop a full list of glacier-related institutions in small mountain countries involved in research, adaptation programs, training and communication. Orlove suggested close attention to the human and social dimensions of glacier retreat, as well as the physical and hydrological aspects. Orlove also proposed developing a grid that would examine the different combinations of activities, structural forms and issues, as a way to locate “low-hanging fruit” that could serve as initial efforts to link countries. The Central Asia-Himalaya link suggested the possibility that such efforts could be drawn on selected regions, rather than the full range of glacier countries around the world.
As the end of the hour allotted for the meeting approached, the participants discussed possible venues for the next meeting of the group. Several people mentioned the World Mountain Forum in Uganda in October 2016 and COP22 in Morocco in November 2016, which is likely to have a thematic focus on water issues, though the possibility of a separate standalone conference was also raised. The participants agreed to remain in contact. This conference indicated that small mountain countries can do more together than they can do alone. The broad awareness of the potential for such coordinated action should provide the stimulus for future actions.