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Kathmandu to Copenhagen: A Regional Climate Change Conference

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- South Asia is endowed with great rivers, which are the lifelines of the regional economy.

- Impacts of climate change are shared by many countries across the Himalaya Region.

- Regional cooperation can play a key role in adaptation and development in the Himalayan region.

The Government of Nepal is hosting a Regional Climate Conference titled "Kathmandu to Copenhagen," from August 31 to September 1, 2009. It will bring together Ministers, high level officials, climate change experts, and key civil society members around the theme of climate change and the South Asian Himalayas. The conference is supported by ADB, DANIDA, DFID, and the World Bank.

Nepal represents one of the iconic examples of climate vulnerability with threats posed by the melting glaciers of the Himalayas and impacts that transcend political boundaries. Its geographic location in the Himalayan headwaters of many of the region's major river systems provide it with strategic climate change adaptation opportunities, to monitor and regulate river flows.

The primary objectives of this conference are to: (i) provide a forum for the countries of the South Asia Himalayas and other countries in the region to share knowledge and experience about common climate change risks; and (ii) forge a common vision on how to tackle the Himalayan climate challenges. The Conference is expected to contribute to thinking about climate change threats and opportunities for South Asia including to discussions in the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) and AWG-Kyoto Protocol.

The timing of the conference:

The conference aims to build a common understanding of the magnitude of future climate risks, development opportunities and potential and explore the common goals of affected countries as specified in the Bali Action Plan.

Coming ahead of the important Copenhagen COP later this year, the conference is timely and demonstrates shared concerns regarding climate vulnerabilities in the South Asia Himalayas and the region as a whole.

Climate vulnerabilities of South Asia:

Speaking in about the conference, Richard Damania, Lead Environmental Economist at the World Bank said South Asia faces daunting climate-related development challenges.

"The impacts of higher temperatures, more variable precipitation, and increased occurrence of extreme weather events are already being felt in the region," said Damania.

He said the South Asia Himalayas comprise the world's highest mountains and their glaciers store the largest body of ice outside of polar region. "These are the source of some of the world's greatest rivers, fed by a unique monsoon. These rivers supply the world's most densely populated flood plains, settled by over 700 million people."

The risks of climate change in the Himalayas are great, he said. Its effects on glaciers, mountain ecosystems, monsoon behavior, and flood and drought intensity are already impacting the livelihoods of millions of people. "Yet our understanding of the extent and consequences of climate change today and in the future is limited. As a result the plight of the Himalayas and the implications for the floodplains has received little global attention," said Damania.

The most significant impacts of climate change are shared by many countries across the Himalaya Region and all of South Asia. It will require communication, cooperation and joint actions to address these common threats.

Damania listed four unique factors that make South Asia vulnerable to the impacts of climate change:

- Poverty and population increase;

- Threats to water supply and agriculture;

- Urbanization; and

- Vulnerability to natural disasters.

First, South Asia has the highest density of poverty in the world. With an estimated 600 million South Asians subsisting on less than $1.25 a day, even small climate shocks can cause irreversible losses and tip a large number of people into destitution.

Second, South Asia is endowed with great rivers, which are the lifelines of the regional economy. The ice mass covering the Himalayan-Hindu Kush mountain range is the source of the nine largest rivers of Asia, including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus. Glacial melt coupled with more variable precipitation could severely compromise livelihoods and the future prospects of agriculture.

Third, projections indicate that by 2050 about half the region's population will dwell in cities. Given current trends, South Asia will host five of the world's 11 megacities-Mumbai, Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, and Kolkata. The cities of South Asia already face immense challenges, including poorly maintained infrastructure, unplanned growth, scant livelihood opportunities, and susceptibility of the poor populations to ill health.

Fourth, South Asia suffers an exceptionally high number of natural disasters. Between 1990 and 2008, more than 750 million people-50 percent of the region's population-were affected by a natural disaster, leaving almost 60,000 dead and resulting in about $45 billion in damages. As climate-related risks intensify, there will be a need to respond proactively to build resilience through prevention and preparedness rather than through relief and response.

Need for regional cooperation:

Regional cooperation can play a key role in adaptation and development in the Himalayan region. With climate change, the monsoons (and hence droughts and floods) are expected to become more intense and less predictable. Coping with these mounting extremes in the river basins of South Asia will require more basin-wide information to predict and warn against floods, for example. It will also call for more basin-wide river management, with coordinated capacity to lower flood peaks and augment low-season flows.

Regional and country initiatives:

There have been many initiatives taken by individual countries and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) toward addressing the challenges of the climate change. The SAARC Environment Ministers adopted the SAARC Action Plan and Declaration on Climate Change at the SAARC Environment Ministerial Meeting in Dhaka in July 2008.

The 15th SAARC summit held in Colombo in August 2008 reiterated the need for strengthening cooperation within the region to deal with climate change issues. Following the COP 13 in Bali, the Government of Bangladesh launched its Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) at a UK-Bangladesh conference in London in September 2008. In early 2009, Pakistan's Ministry of Environment held a Corporate Summit on Climate Change aimed at increasing the involvement of corporations in Pakistan on the climate challenge.

Projected climate change impacts in South Asia:

Afghanistan: Already extreme climate variability (drought/flood shocks) will increase, intensifying existing livelihood fragility and compounding social and economic risks.

Bangladesh: Exceptional scale of impacts including sea-level rise directly affecting at least 30% of the population, coupled with intensified monsoons and changes in rainfall patterns yielding flood and drought shocks, and cyclones, all stretching current community adaptation to the limit. Massive climate out-migration is likely to happen.

Bhutan: The knowledge base is limited. However, rising temperatures and the associated glacial melt, Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) and varying agricultural yields are likely to be the greatest threats to the country.

India: Increased intensity and frequency of storm surges, cyclones, floods and droughts, negative impact on agricultural yields, decrease in river flows, sea level rise and its impact on coastal livelihoods and consequences of Himalayan snow melt and associated risks are the major climate change-induced issues. The magnitude of every climate change impact is likely to be among the world's highest, but this massive challenge is crowded out by mitigation concerns.

Maldives: Sea-level rise and tidal surges threaten to displace the majority of the population.

Nepal: Severe climate change impacts through snow melting and glacial lake outburst and lowland floods and potential threat on hydroelectricity generation due to low river flow; however, unique opportunity for compensation for environmental services as country is potential key to adaptation in the river basins through adoption of renewable and/or clean energy development path including hydroelectricity development and forest management.

Pakistan: Potentially huge and rapid reductions in (50% glacier-fed) Indus flows, coupled with intensified droughts and sea-level rise, will require major livelihood transitions and economic transformation, with consequent risks of social upheaval if unplanned.

Sri Lanka: Sea-level rise and increased cyclone incidence impacting dense coastal populations and livelihoods.