Mountain communities being devastated by extreme climate impacts

For those mountain communities living at the extreme edges of the world, climate change is already a very real threat. Researchers are calling for vulnerable communities to be given special consideration in the Paris negotiations next month.

News, 18 November 2015
The impact of drought on formerly arable land can be seen in Fuyuan county in southwest China's Yunnan province, an area known for its mild climate (Photo: Mingjia Zhou, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The impact of drought on formerly arable land can be seen in Fuyuan county in southwest China's Yunnan province, an area known for its mild climate (Photo: Mingjia Zhou, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Researchers at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and ANDES (Peru) are calling on negotiators at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris to ensure that the most vulnerable people – including mountain communities – are given special attention in a robust and binding climate treaty next month.

These vulnerable mountain voices often go unheard, despite the fact that half the world's population is reliant on mountains for their water

Mountain ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with several extreme impact events attributed to warming. 

Glaciers are continuing to shrink, reducing water availability and increasing erosion and landsliding in mountain areas. High mountains are 'highly temperature-sensitive regions', and there is evidence that temperatures are rising faster at higher altitudes

IIED researcher Krystyna Swiderska said: "For the world's mountain communities, severe climate change impacts are already here. Given the importance of mountains to the world, the Paris climate treaty must make these regions a priority when agreeing and implementing adaptation policy."

IPCC research shows that even modest changes in climate can push vulnerable communities into chronic poverty. Such shifts have already been observed among climate-sensitive livelihoods in high mountain environments. Yet mountain people rarely receive support for adaptation and are rarely involved in adaptation planning.

Extreme events are occurring in widespread locations

Mountain regions are home to some of the poorest and most marginalised indigenous people. In the last 18 months alone:

  • Papua New Guinea has declared a state of emergency as many communities face famine due to lack of rain for more than six months
  • Southwest China has experienced recurring drought for the fifth year
  • In Taiwan and the Philippines typhoons have become more frequent and destructive 
  • Communities in India and Thailand reported giant hailstones damaging housing and crops
  • In Kyrgyzstan late frost and snow have destroyed fruit harvests, and
  • Tajikistan has experienced unprecedented mudflows, destroying hundreds of houses and killing seven people this year.

In September, leaders of 21 indigenous mountain communities in 10 countries met in Tajikistan to discuss the impacts of climate change and exchange strategies for adaptation, culminating in the Tuggoz Declaration

Krystyna added: "The Tuggoz Declaration calls on governments and negotiators to urgently implement radical cuts in emissions, which are destroying livelihoods and ecosystems in fragile mountain environments; and to actively involve mountain communities in adaptation planning.”"

Mountain communities offer climate-smart solutions

These communities also sustain important resources for adaptation – a rich diversity of crops and livestock breeds already adapted to harsh conditions. These local landraces, along with traditional knowledge and farming practices are proving vital, but are rarely prioritised in adaptation programmes.

All groups attending the Tajikistan meeting found that local varieties perform better in worsening drought or pest conditions than the modern, introduced varieties, and that planting a diversity of crops is essential to avoid the risk of crop failure in an increasingly variable climate. 

This was the second meeting of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples (INMIP), which includes Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand and the Philippines, and is coordinated by ANDES (Peru) and IIED. 

The meeting found that mountain indigenous peoples are already facing drastic changes in their food and farming systems due to more extreme and unusual weather patterns, and that these impacts have got worse in the last 18 months, since the first INMIP meeting in Bhutan

The declaration calls on governments and climate negotiators to ensure the full and effective participation of mountain indigenous peoples in climate change policy and planning at international, national and local levels; and to prioritise vulnerable mountain communities in climate finance allocation. 

It calls for the legal recognition of indigenous Biocultural Heritage Territories (PDF); and for governments to fully respect traditional knowledge, cultural values and languages, and to integrate these into education systems. It calls for their rights to land, natural resources and traditional ways of life to be fully respected in mitigation and adaptation strategies, and for implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Notes to editors

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: