THE ASIA HIGH MOUNTAINS PROJECT
Millions of people depend on water that springs from the high-mountain headwaters of Central Asia. Its towering peaks are home to the endangered snow leopard, ancient cultures, and landscapes that are being too quickly transformed by climate change. Glaciers are melting, snow cover and permafrost are disappearing, and water availability is changing—putting local and downstream communities and ecosystems at risk.
In October 2012, WWF began to address this through the USAID-funded Conservation and Adaptation in Asia's High Mountain Landscapes and Communities Project. The five-year effort promotes a transboundary approach to climate-smart management of high mountain landscapes and enhanced water security throughout the snow leopard range.
"The retreat of glaciers due to climate change is a very serious, but little-known, threat for Asia's water security, people's livelihoods, and mountain biodiversity," says Mary Melnyk, Environmental Security and Resilience Team Leader for USAID's Asia Bureau. "To address this threat, our goal for this project is to maintain high mountain headwater areas through conserving critical ecosystems that include snow leopard habitat, and assisting local communities as they adapt to climate-driven changes to their water supplies."
This interconnected climate-water-wildlife approach is novel, and it is the first time comprehensive, coordinated, climate-smart conservation is being implemented across the vast range of snow leopard habitat instead of in isolated project sites.
"Ten years ago, this grass was so high it was hard to drive a car through," says Omurbeck Kurmanaliev, gesturing across a flat, exposed valley lying between umber foothills. A small brook courses through the middle, runoff from the steep flank of a mountainside dusted with late spring snow. Alongside the water, a low mat of grass carpets the rocky soil—an oasis at which a small herd of bony cows munches away.
Kurmanaliev is 48, with a weathered face and thin moustache; he wears desert fatigues, his uniform as a part-time ranger at the nearby Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve. For five generations, his family has lived in Ak-Shyrak, a remote village in the adjacent valley. Their modest home, like those of the other 30 families there, is a single-story, mud-brick dwelling with a pitched roof and powder blue window shutters. Beside it stand an outhouse and a livestock pen. Kyrgyz television news and Russian movies beam into the carpeted living-dining room from a satellite dish erected above the goats' enclosure just outside. There are electricity lines but no telephone link.
For years, residents have relied on a predictable seasonal cycle. Each spring, they bring their cows, sheep, and goats to feed in the rocky ravines and basins where snowmelt collects. In a typical year, these wetland pastures grow well into October, when the herders harvest and stockpile the grass for fodder during the harsh winter months.
But winters have become longer and drier, Kurmanaliev says. Warmer summers, meanwhile, have melted the layer of subterranean permafrost that holds groundwater close to the surface vegetation, so the wetlands are drying out. With more meager pasture in the fall now, villagers have resorted to buying hay from lower-lying areas—a five-hour drive away.
It’s a familiar story all across Asia's high mountains. In the Himalaya, local farmers report the annual monsoon season now arrives later than usual; weather is more erratic across the region. Invasive species are creeping into higher terrain, rendering pastures unpalatable to livestock that is not adapted to these new (and in some cases toxic) plants; herders are forced to graze their animals in neighbors' pastures, causing conflicts within communities that never before existed.
More worrying still is the rapid glacier melt now occurring in alpine regions, which is altering river flows and the seasonal availability of water. The melting also leads to the formation of glacial lakes behind relatively weak ice "dams," which can burst suddenly, flooding valleys below. The consequences of climate change threaten endemic species, downstream settlements, and agricultural productivity. Residents of Central Asia's high mountain communities, notes Karin Krchnak, director of WWF's freshwater programs, "are coming up against changes in their environment that their grandparents never saw."
Central Asia's major mountain ranges—the Tian Shan, Kunlun, Altai, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and Himalaya—meet in and around Kyrgyzstan, and fan out across 12 countries. They hold the sources of fresh water for an estimated 300 million people. Conservation of these cross-border ecosystems in the face of climate change requires getting nations—even traditional adversaries—to collaborate.
But how to get them to the table?
As it happens, these high-mountain headwater areas are also the habitat of, and vital travel corridors for, the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia). "When you start thinking about ensuring the future of the snow leopard, you naturally come to the issue of watershed stewardship," Krchnak says. "That can be a nice, gentle segue to getting everyone together to talk about protecting these critical watersheds for the benefit of all."
Omurbeck Kurmanaliev's elders used to talk about the snow leopard as a sacred animal. Its presence was viewed as auspicious. "They thought if snow leopards moved into the area, it would bring peace and prosperity," he says. Some Kyrgyz believe that the birth of a snow leopard in their area foreshadows a milder winter. Parents admonish their children to be as strong and clean as a snow leopard. "My father used to warn me," Kurmanaliev adds, "'Don't harm a snow leopard or it will bring about a curse.'" There are approximately 150-200 snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan today. It is broadly estimated that across their entire range, only somewhere between 3,500 and 7,000 remain.