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Why restoring the world’s mountains matters for all of us

Why restoring the world’s mountains matters for all of us

Celebrate International Mountain Day - 11 December

Mountains are the key to our water sources and a lifeline for millions. Restoration in mountains requires sustained investments as well as monitoring and evaluation.

We need mountains to drink: each day, one in two people on the planet quenches their thirst with water that originates in mountains.

In South Africa, 10% of the land has been designated Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSAs), that generates 50% of the water in rivers and key groundwater resources.

  • A more recent study identifies 21 Strategic Water Souce Areas (WSAs) for surface water (SWSA-sw) which covered 8% of South Africa and supplied 50% of the mean annual runoff.
  • The greatest volume of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) is generated by the Southern Drakensberg (9%), followed by the Eastern Cape, Northern Drakensberg and Maloti Drakensberg, and the Boland.
  • The Boland has the highest MAR per unit area (3588 m3/ha/year), followed by Table Mountain, the Northern Drakensberg and the Mpumalanga Drakensberg.

Restoration Landscaping 

Restoration landscaping is all about ...

  • Restoring natural habitats that are ecologically appropriate
  • Working with nature to reduce soil erosion
  • Removing waterholic invasive species 
  • Reviving ecological functionality 
  • Restoring ecosystem services
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Mountain biodiversity 

At the same time, mountains across the world are home to rich biodiversity, with some 25 out of 34 of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots in mountain regions.

Mountains cover a little over one quarter of the earth’s land area and are home to 1.1 billion people, many of whom make a living from the ecosystem services that mountains provide.

However, a new publication released today on International Mountain Day by the Mountain Partnership Secretariat at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) underlines how climate change and human activity are degrading ecosystems in mountains, threatening the lives and livelihoods of local people, wildlife, and the water supplies we all depend upon.

Climate change and mountains 

Mountain ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change, including the retreat of mountain glaciers, permafrost thaw, mass loss of ice sheets and the decline in the depth, extent and duration of snow cover, explains Restoring mountain ecosystems, which was launched at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28).

Human activity contributes to the degradation of many mountain regions, and pollution is a growing problem with microplastics now found even on the highest peaks, including below the summit of Mount Everest.

About 25 percent of the global mountain area is also exceptionally vulnerable to landslide risks.

With one in two rural mountain people living in developing countries vulnerable to food insecurity, the loss of ecosystem services that mountains provide has profound consequences, especially for the most vulnerable groups such as women and Indigenous Peoples.

Dierama (Pic: Ron Wright)
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Mountain Flowers by Elsa Pooley
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Scilla natalensis
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So how can we help keep our mountains healthy?

The United Nations declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to halt, prevent and reverse the degradation of ecosystems, and the FAO-UNEP study highlights how best practices for ecosystem restoration can be applied to mountain ecosystems to develop more sustainable restoration projects.

Bold collective action is needed to safeguard and revitalize these vital ecosystems on which we all depend.  

We need to restore mountains with a range of methods, from soil management to reforestation and to improve habitat for wildlife.  

Restoration in mountains requires sustained investments as well as monitoring and evaluation.

But a lot of knowledge and tools are already there. Mountain people are at the heart of restoration and can draw on many proven healthy and sustainable practices, as the FAO-UNEP report outlines.

For example, led by UNEP, the Carpathian Convention and the Mountain Partnership, the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration multi-country mountain World Restoration Flagship initiative in Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda, Serbia and Uganda supports large-scale, long-term restoration efforts while providing sustainable livelihood opportunities.

Central Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, 14,000 ha of pastures and glaciers in the Tien-Shan mountains were converted into a nature reserve in collaboration with local communities and local NGO CAMP Alatoo.  

Today, former hunters and fishermen have become community rangers who patrol the newly established Baiboosun micro-reserve and manage camera traps to monitor wildlife.

Meanwhile, local shepherds have adopted modern grazing techniques that have enhanced vegetation and pastureland vitality within the reserve.

As a result, snow leopard and ibex populations are increasing within the reserve. Many community members have embraced new economic opportunities, from running guest houses to producing cheese and crafting souvenirs from felt.

Africa 

In the Virunga massif, which spreads across parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, gorilla numbers have been steadily climbing.

The species are now classified as ‘endangered’ but not ‘critically endangered’ as they were five years ago. Since the 1980s, their numbers have increased by 100 percent. Local communities bordering the park are now involved in restoration work and ecotourism, which provides new sources of income helping to reduce harmful subsistence activities like poaching.

These initiatives show what is possible.

We must not let the remoteness and isolation of mountains mean that we fail to give them the attention they deserve.

Ecosystem restoration is a way of investing in the future, in our mountains and in the next generation.  

Signatories to the International Mountain Day press release: 

  • Tiina Vahanen, Deputy Director of Forestry Division, FAO
  • Susan Gardner, Director of Ecosystems Division, UNEP
Kyrgyzstan -Tien-Shan Mountains (Pic: FAO)
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Mountains of the Gorillas - Congo (Pic FAO)
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Fact File

December 11 is International Mountain Day. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed it as such when the year 2002 was declared as the UN International Year of Mountains.

The aim of this International Day is to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, and to highlight opportunities and threats surrounding mountain sustainability. It is also a time for developing partnerships that will bring positive changes for the world’s highlands and mountain areas.

International Mountain Day has its origins in the adoption of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, ‘Managing fragile Ecosystems; Sustainable Mountain Development’, at the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

The theme for International Mountain Day 2023: Is ‘Restoring Mountain Ecosystems’, inspired by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, a collaborative effort of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO coordinates annual celebrations for the day and is mandated to lead observation of it globally. The decade is an opportunity to amass political support, scientific research and financial resources to adequately create restoration plans and implement measures to combat further degradation of mountain ecosystems.

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