The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People

Multiple Authors
Two people walking on a mountain in Hindu Kush Himalaya. View with a peak behind and a blue sky.
Video introduction to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability, and People


This assessment report establishes the value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) for the 240 million hill and mountain people across the eight countries sharing the region, for the 1.65 billion people in the river basins downstream, and ultimately for the world. Yet, the region and its people face a range of old and new challenges moving forward, with climate change, globalization, movement of people, conflict and environmental degradation. In spite of its importance, relatively less is known about the HKH, its ecosystems and its people, especially in the context of rapid change. Over the last few decades, there has been more research on the region, but the knowledge gathered is often scattered. The main objective of the assessment thus is to inform decision-makers with the best science and knowledge we have. A very important finding of the assessment is that while we have significant knowledge gaps, we know enough to take action.

This open access volume is the first comprehensive assessment of the HKH region. It consists of 16 chapters, linked to nine mountain priorities for the mountains and people of the HKH consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals.The compiled content is based on the collective knowledge of over 300 leading researchers, experts and policymakers, brought together by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP) under the coordination of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The report*, which was launchedon 4 February 2019, has received an overwhelming media attention and coveage, and has already been downloadedfor over 550K times.

Additional materials (summary report, chapter briefs) related to the report can be downloaded from here.

Click here to download “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People” >

*An overview of the publication is provided below. See the full text for much more detail.


Chapter 1: Introduction to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

Mountains are large landforms raised above the surface of the earth emerging into peaks and ranges. Mountains occupy 22% of the world’s land surface area and are home to about 13% of the world’s population (FAO2015). While about 915 million people live in mountainous region, less than 150 million people live above 2,500 m above sea level (masl), and only 20–30 million people live above 3,000 masl.

Read the full chapter for more information on the Hindu Kush Himalaya priorities contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, but also the conceptual framing and assesment process.

Chapter 2: Drivers of Change to Mountain Sustainability in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

What are the maindrivers of change affecting mountain sustainability in the HKH? This chapter seeks answers to this critical question.Many challenges for sustainability are related to weak governance, natural resource overexploitation, environmental degradation, certain aspects of unregulated or rapid urbanization, and loss of traditional culture.

Key Findings

  • Looming challenges characterize the HKH as environmental, sociocultural, and economic changes are dynamically impacting livelihoods, environmental conditions, and ultimately sustainability.
  • However, for mountain societies of the HKH, some changes may also bring novel opportunities for sustainable development.
  • The drivers of change to environmental, sociocultural, and economic sustainability in the HKH are interactive, inextricably linked, and increasingly influenced by regional and global developments.

Chapter 3: Unravelling Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Rapid Warming in the Mountains and Increasing Extremes

Historically, the climate of the HKH has experienced significant changes that are closely related to the rise and fall of regional cultures and civilizations. Studies show well-established evidence that climate drivers of tropical and extra-tropical origin—such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), and the Arctic Oscillation—influence the region’s weather and climate on multiple spatio-temporal scales.

Key Findings

  • For the past five to six decades, the HKH have shown a rising trend of extreme warm events; a falling trend of extreme cold events; and a rising trend in extreme values and frequencies of temperature-based indices (both minimum and maximum).
  • ​The HKH is experiencing increasing variability in western disturbances and a higher probability of snowfall in the Karakoram and western Himalaya, changes that will likely contribute to increases in glacier mass in those areas.
  • In the future, even if global warming is kept to 1.5 °C, warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region will likely be at least 0.3 °C higher, and in the northwest Himalaya and Karakoram at least 0.7 °C higher.
  • Consensus among models for the HKH region is weak—a result of the region’s complex topography and the coarse resolution of global climate models.

Chapter 4: Exploring Futures of the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Scenarios and Pathways

To illuminate future uncertainties and inform strategic plans, this chapter presents three qualitative scenarios for the status of the HKH through 2080. The scenarios emerged from a participatory visioning exercise for scenario development conducted by the chapter team and HIMAP secretariat between January and September 2016. Over six successive workshops, decision makers and scientists representing HKH countries determined what would constitute a “prosperous” HKH scenario for 2080—along with its less desirable alternatives, business as usual and downhill .

Key Findings

  • This is a precarious moment for the HKH. Environmentally, socially, and economically, there is no single likely future for the HKH.
  • Evidence-based actions to reduce disaster risk, to mitigate and adapt to climate change and to adopt good governance, are central to ensuring prosperity in the HKH by 2080, as well as collaboration among state and non-state actors.

Chapter 5: Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Mountains make up 24% of the world’s land area, are home to 20% of the world’s population, provide 60–80% of the world’s fresh water, and harbour 50% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots (well-established). The United Nations recognized the importance of mountain ecosystems, both for conserving biological diversity and for sustaining humanity, in Chap. 13 of Agenda 21. More generally, ecosystem diversity, species diversity, genetic diversity, and functional diversity all play key roles in the ecosystem services that benefit people and communities (well-established).

Key Findings

  • The mountain ecosystems of the HKH are diverse with one of the highest diversity of flora and fauna providing varied ecosystem services to one fourth of humanity.
  • The HKH has numerous seeds of good practices in conservation and restoration of degraded habitat along with community development which need upscaling and out scaling.
  • Global and regional drivers of change on biodiversity and ecosystem loss are prevalent and increasing in the HKH.

Chapter 6: Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

The HKH regions form the entirety of some countries, a major part of other countries, and a small percentage of yet others. Because of this, when we speak about meeting the energy needs of the HKH region we need to be clear that we are not necessarily talking about the countries that host the HKH, but the clearly delineated mountainous regions that form the HKH within these countries. It then immediately becomes clear that energy provisioning has to be done in a mountain context characterized by low densities of population, low incomes, dispersed populations, grossly underdeveloped markets, low capabilities, and poor economies of scale. In other words, the energy policies and strategies for the HKH region have to be specific to these mountain contexts.

Key Findings

  • The HKH, despite having huge hydropower potential of ~500 GW, remains energy poor and vulnerable.
  • Measures to enhance energy supply in the HKH have had less than satisfactory results.
  • Inadequate data and analyses are a major barrier to designing context-specific interventions.

Chapter 7: Status and Change of the Cryosphere in the Extended Hindu Kush Himalaya Region

The cryosphere is defined by the presence of frozen water in its many forms: glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, snow, permafrost, and river and lake ice. In the extended HKH region, including the Pamirs, Tien Shan and Alatua, the cryosphere is a key freshwater resource, playing a vital and significant role in local and regional hydrology and ecology. Industry, agriculture, and hydroelectric power generation rely on timely and sufficient delivery of water in major river systems; changes in the cryospheric system may thus pose challenges for disaster risk reduction in the extended HKH region.

Key Findings

  • The cryosphere—snow, ice, and permafrost—is an important part of the water supply in the extended Hindu Kush Himalaya region. Observed and projected changes in the cryosphere will affect the timing and magnitude of streamflows across the region, with proportionally greater impacts upstream.
  • There is high confidence that snow-covered areas and snow volumes will decrease in most regions over the coming decades in response to increased temperatures, and that snowline elevations will rise.
  • Glaciers have thinned, retreated, and lost mass since the 1970s, except for parts of the Karakoram, eastern Pamir, and western Kunlun. Trends of increased mass loss are projected to continue in most regions, with possibly large consequences for the timing and magnitude of glacier melt runoff and glacier lake expansion.
  • There is high confidence that permafrost will continue to thaw and the active layer (seasonally thawed upper soil layer) thickness will increase.

Chapter 8: Water in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Commonly described as the “water tower for Asia,” the HKH plays an important role in ensuring water, food, energy, and environmental security for much of the continent. The HKH is the source of ten major rivers that provide water—while also supporting food and energy production and a range of other ecosystem services—for two billion people across Asia. This chapter takes stock of current scientific knowledge on the availability of water resources in the HKH; the varied components of its water supply; the impact of climate change on future water availability; the components of water demand; and the policy, institutions, and governance challenges for water security in the region.

Key Findings

  • The HKH mountains provide two billion people a vital regional lifeline via water.
  • Glacier and snow melt are important components of streamflow in the region. Groundwater, from springs in the mid-hills of the HKH, is also an important contributor to river baseflow.
  • Water governance in the HKH is characterised by hybrid formal-informal regimes with a prevalence of informal institutions at the local level and formal state institutions at national and regional levels.

Chapter 9: Food and Nutrition Security in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Unique Challenges and Niche Opportunities

The mountain people of the HKH face large challenges in food and nutrition security. Although progress has been made in calorie intake, malnutrition remains a serious challenge (wellestablished). About 50% of the population suffers from malnutrition, and women and children suffer more. Ending hunger and achieving food and nutrition security—as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals—is an urgent need for the governments of the region.

Key Findings

  • Food and nutrition insecurity remains a serious challenge in the HKH region; more than 30% of the population suffers from food insecurity and around 50% face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most.
  • The causes of food and nutrition insecurity in the HKH are multifaceted and complex, and influenced by a range of factors.
  • Traditional mountain food systems are currently under threat from rapid socioeconomic and environmental changes

Chapter 10: Air Pollution in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Air pollution has large impacts on the HKH, affecting not just the health of people and ecosystems, but also climate, the cryosphere, monsoon patterns, water availability, agriculture, and incomes (established but incomplete). Although the available data are not comprehensive, they clearly show that the HKH receives significant amounts of air pollution from within and outside of the region, including the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP), a region where many rural areas are severely polluted. In addition, the HKH receives trans-boundary pollution from other parts of Asia. This chapter surveys the evidence on regional air pollution and considers options for reducing it, while underlining the need for regional collaboration in mitigation efforts.

Key Findings

  • Air pollution in the HKH is on the rise and regional air quality has worsened in the past two decades, with the adjacent Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) having become one of the most polluted regions in the world.
  • Persistent winter fog and haze have increased across the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP), leading to reduced visibility and elevated air pollution just south of the HKH and affecting air quality in the HKH as well as in the IGP.
  • The HKH is sensitive to climate change—air pollutants originating within and near the HKH amplify the effects of greenhouse gases and accelerate the melting of the cryosphere through the deposition of black carbon and dust, the circulation of the monsoon, and the distribution of rainfall over Asia.

Chapter 11: Disaster Risk Reduction and Building Resilience in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

The HKH—covering more than four million square kilometres from Afghanistan to Myanmar—is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse mountain biomes, with extreme variations in vegetation. It is also one of the most hazard-prone. Because of its steep terrain, high seismicity, fragile geological formation, and intense and highly variable precipitation, the HKH is especially vulnerable to floods, landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes (well-established).

Key Findings

  • More than one billion people are at risk of exposure to increasing frequency and intensity of natural hazards.
  • Cascading events resulting from a multi-hazard environment have upstream-downstream linkages, often with transboundary impacts.
  • When disasters hit the HKH, they affect more women than men.

Chapter 12: Understanding and Tackling Poverty and Vulnerability in Mountain Livelihoods in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

This chapter critically reviews the existing knowledge on livelihoods, poverty, and vulnerability in the HKH. Development in mountain areas and the practices of people in these areas are uniquely conditioned by distinct characteristics that we term “mountain specificities”. Some of these specificities—such as inaccessibility, fragility, and marginality—constrain development. Others—such as abundant biological diversity, ecological niches, and adaptation mechanisms—present development opportunities for mountain people.

Key Findings

  • Overall, in the mountains and hills of the HKH region, the poverty incidence is one-third compared to one-fourth for the national average.
  • Poverty reduction approaches/programmes designed at national level are likely to miss crucial subnational and local manifestations of poverty.
  • Determinants of vulnerability and of poverty in the HKH overlap substantially.

Chapter 13: Adaptation to Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Stronger Action Urgently Needed

Climate change impacts in the mountains of the HKH are already substantive. Increased climate variability is already affecting water availability, ecosystem services, and agricultural production, and extreme weather is causing flash floods, landslides, and debris flow. Climate change is likely to have serious effects in the next decades in the mountains of the HKH (well established). By 2050, mountain temperatures across the region are projected to increase beyond 2 °C on average, and more at higher elevations. Mountain communities—especially remote ones—are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than non-mountain areas (established but incomplete). The high mountains are poorly served by life-saving and livelihood-supporting infrastructure. Access to climate information and support services is limited, as is the presence of government extension agencies. Weak institutional links hinder farmers from adopting technology that can contribute to adaptive capacity. For poor and marginalized groups, deep and pervasive structural inequalities make climate change adaptation even more difficult. Although the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group 2 had four chapters on adaptation, literature on mountain specifics was not prioritized. However, although still insufficient, scientific literature in the region is rapidly emerging, and there is a wealth of information emerging from ongoing adaptation action driven by HKH countries.

Key Findings

  • Adaptation to climate change is increasingly urgent for the HKH—yet for policy makers it is a complex challenge. Adaptation responses by governments in the HKH are mostly incremental and not yet well integrated with development plans and programmes.
  • In spite of these challenges, opportunities do exist for a scaled up, inclusive, and more comprehensive climate change adaptation responses in the HKH.
  • Bolstering climate change adaptation in the HKH will require very substantial increases in funding than currently available.

Chapter 14: In the Shadows of the Himalayan Mountains: Persistent Gender and Social Exclusion in Development

Climate change in combination with socioeconomic processes and opportunities have an especially severe impact on people living in remote mountain areas of the Hindu Kush Himalaya. What is less well known is how changes in climate will affect in the quality of lives, livelihoods, and resources of diverse groups of people of the region. The chapter argues that it is not only important but also necessary to link climate science and climate interventions with relevant contextual experiences of the different groups of people due their differential experiences and vulnerabilities. The chapter provides illustrative cases studies to demonstrate the differential experiences and vulnerabilities of women and men as a result of the dynamics of gender relations in the context of climate change.

Key Findings

  • Polices and responses in HKH countries overlook women’s multiple forms of oppressions and exclusions.
  • Existing laws and policies do not support the multiple ways in which women negotiate their roles in households, communities, and the market.
  • Women throughout the HKH do not have corresponding decision-making rights or control over resources despite shouldering both productive and reproductive workloads and responsibilities.

Chapter 15: Migration in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Drivers, Consequences, and Governance

For the countries of the HKH region, the importance of migration continues to be significant for livelihoods. Migration governance, therefore, is a critical priority (well-established). This chapter focuses on labour migration in the eight HKH countries. It explores the countries’ overall migration experience and, where possible, highlights findings specific to mountain areas of the HKH.

Key Findings

  • Migration drives a broad range of economic, social and political changes throughout the HKH, while migration itself is determined by multiple factors.
  • Labour migration contributes significantly to poverty reduction in the HKH region, although this depends on who is able to move, and under what conditions.Migration can be seen as a way to promote resilience to climate change, but investment in agriculture or climate adaptation is rarely the first priority of migrant households in mountainous area.
  • Issues associated with internal migration remain peripheral to the policy discourse of most HKH countries, even though more than three times as many people migrate internally compared to international migration.

Chapter 16: Governance: Key for Environmental Sustainability in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

The governance of environmental resources holds the key to the future of sustainable development in the HKH.
  1. Institutional innovation—for landscape level governance, upstream-downstream linkages, and for translating policy goals into action;
  2. Upscaling and institutionalizing decentralized and community based resource management practices;
  3. Transboundary cooperation for managing connected landscapes; and
  4. Science–policy–practice interface for decision making, learning and effective implementation of policies and programs.

Key Findings

  • There are few existing regional policies and processes for environmental governance in the HKH—most are national and subnational.
  • Environmental governance reforms in the HKH emphasize decentralization, often creating positive local outcomes—yet these local initiatives are not adequately supported through subnational and national governance systems.
  • HKH countries lack institutions to link upstream and downstream communities in river basins and mountain landscapes.

Suggested citation

Wester, P., Arabinda M., Aditi M., Arun B.S. (ed.) (2019) The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment—Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability, and People. Springer Nature Switzerland AG.

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