Sustainable development in the HKH mountains and the role of GIS

Sustainable development in the HKH mountains and the role of GIS


Birendra Bajracharya & Basanta Shrestha

The mountains started receiving increasing attention in global agendas since the last decade as the linkages between environmental degradation in the mountain areas and its effect downstream started becoming prominent. The importance of mountains as global life support systems has been duly recognised by the proclamation of the year 2002 as International Year of Mountains (IYM) by the United Nations (UN, 1998). The overall goal of the IYM is to promote conservation and sustainable development of mountain regions, thereby ensuring the present and future well-being of mountain and lowland communities.

Sustainable development of mountain regions is a challenging task because these areas have highly diverse and fragile ecosystems. Among the mountain areas of the world, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region offers the greatest challenge for sustainability. The HKH region is geologically the youngest mountain range giving rise to a high degree of natural hazards. It is the most densely populated mountain range with majority of the population living below the poverty line. The poverty of these people are due to poor productive base, isolation, social and political exclusion, and above all, the severity of the constraints of unfavourable geographical situation. Besides, the life and property of these people are highly vulnerable to natural calamities such as earthquake, flash floods and landslides. It has been recognised that poverty alleviation and development in mountain areas should be based on local resources. This will require the recognition of mountain specificities and identification and assessment of its resource base. Unlike the plain areas, space is characterised by discontinuities and high variability in the mountain areas. Therefore methodologies for resource assessment and development planning have to be highly sensitive to spatial variations (Papola, 2001).

Poverty alleviation and sustainable development of the mountain people in the HKH have been the main agenda of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). As mainstream development strategies, policies and programmes are often unsuitable for mountain areas for the reasons of inadequate understanding of mountain specificities, ICIMOD’s effort has been to establish itself as a hub for mountain specific knowledge. Realizing the potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in integrating various biophysical and socio-economic information and generating knowledge with spatial characteristics, ICIMOD through its Mountain Environment and Natural Resources Information Systems (MENRIS) division, has been working on disseminating GIS and Remote Sensing for sustainable development in the region. It has been working on developing methodologies for applying the technology in portraying the livelihoods of the people in relation the resource base and infrastructure, thus helping for better planning and implementation of development programmes. Some of the works done by MENRIS are discussed here.

MENRIS at work

Assessing the Resource Base – Regional Land Cover Mapping
The mountain people have to rely on limited access to resources for their livelihood. The region is highly vulnerable to irreversible damages due to overuse or rapid changes in the characteristics of land, vegetative resources and even the delicate life support systems of the mountain communities (Jodha, 1992). The most visible changes due to human activities are on the land cover. The land use decisions that people make for natural resources utilization not only change the shape and size of the land cover, but also have numerous impacts on socio-economic, cultural and institutional aspects of those areas. Hence, study of land cover forms a major component in the assessment of local resources and their changes. Lack of a base line data on land cover is a major hindrance for such studies in the region. In this context, MENRIS has been working on preparing a regional land cover map of the HKH.

The land cover maps are prepared using IRS WiFS (Indian Remote Sensing satellite Wide Field Sensor) data (Figure 1). Secondary information such as existing land cover/ land use maps, elevation and temperature data are used for the image classification. Land cover mapping of Nepal and Bhutan has already been completed using the same methodology. Although the land cover maps are available for both the countries, they are old (e.g., land cover map of Nepal was prepared in 1978 by LRMP), and the data sources and methodologies varied a lot. The present effort by MENRIS tries to adopt a consistent data source and methodology for the whole region. Besides, the use of satellite images makes it much easier to repeat the process in the future for updating the database and change detection.

Assessing the hazards – Glaciers and Glacial Lake Inventory
The high vulnerability of mountain people to natural hazards has made the poverty alleviation more challenging. One of such hazards is due to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). There have been several floods due to the outburst of glacial lakes in the HKH region. Global climatic change has had a significant impact on the high mountain glacial environment. Many big glaciers have melted rapidly, forming numerous glacial lakes (Mool et al., 2001). With an increasing rate of snow melt and sudden discharge of large volumes of water with debris from these lakes causes GLOFs which have devastating effects in the valleys downstream. Not only the infrastructures and human lives are lost, but hundreds of marginal farmlands are rendered uncultivable, thus depriving the people from their means of livelihood.

The study conducted by MENRIS with the assistance from United Nations Environment Programme- Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific (UNEP-RRC.AP) has prepared an inventory of glaciers and glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan. Studies for Tibetan plateau and other parts of the region are planned. Although the study was mainly conducted to identify the potentially dangerous lakes and prepare mitigation plans, the outcome of the study provides a very good regional base line data. Since the study has used early topographic maps, aerial photographs and satellite images (figure 2), thus presenting a comprehensive methodology for mapping the glaciers and glacial lakes, it also gives the picture of changes with time. In fact, the rate of change in size of the lakes is one of the criteria for identifying their potential danger.

Assessing the Environment – SoE 2001 Nepal
The poor quality of life of the people in the HKH region has been further stressed due to degrading state of the environment. Identification of pressures to the environment and their impacts, and analysis of the effectiveness of the responses taken by the governments and the people is important to come up with viable solutions to the problems.

ICIMOD, in collaboration with Ministry of Population and Environment and support from UNEP-RRC.AP, recently completed a study on “State of the Environment – Nepal”. The study shows that forest depletion and land degradation are major environmental problems in Nepal (SoE Nepal, 2001). Other key environmental issues identified are water pollution, solid waste and air pollution. These issues are mainly prominent in the urban centres. Rapid and haphazard growth of urban centres is another characteristic of the development trend in the region.

The study has compiled time series database on relevant environmental and biophysical parameters which reveal certain trends on these key issues. Although there are certain gaps in the database, which is obvious due to the different data sources, it has brought all the available information in one place in a comprehensible format. Efforts have been made to relate the data in spatial context as much as possible. The study also includes the related policy initiatives and issues on their implementation.

GIS for Sustainable Development – MENRIS strategies
The works presented above show that of GIS and RS technology are of immense value in the assessment and analysis of different scenarios, which will ultimately generate knowledge about various parameters with their spatial characteristics. Such information are invaluable for addressing numerous issues in sustainable development of the region. The conceptual framework adopted by MENRIS for the utilization of GIS technology and applications for sustainable mountain development in the HKH is shown in figure 3.

Although the use of GIS technology has been advocated to understand the various natural and socio-economic processes in the region, it is important that the scientists and planners first understand the technology itself for its appropriate utilization. Realizing that trained manpower is the most important factor for successful application of the technology, MENRIS has put major effort to capacity building activities since its inception. Again, keeping in view the diverse applications that are possible using GIS, and the importance of the role of partnerships among the different institutions across the region, MENRIS strategies also include application development and networking activities. The programme focus of MENRIS with four main building blocks is shown in figure 4.

Capacity Building
Under its capacity building activities, nearly 800 people from over 100 partner institutions have been trained by MENRIS in the use of GIS technologies. Since 1997, nearly 240 people have been trained in GIS applications that are specific to mountain areas. Several partner institutions have in turn become nodal agencies that train professionals and students from many varied disciplines. A recent MENRIS project has been the production of a training CD-ROM on the Application of Geo-informatics for Sustainable Mountain Development. This CD-ROM is the first step in a computer-based approach to training that should one day offer students in the region the options of distance learning, web-based training and, eventually, university courses. To bring GIS to a broader audience, MENRIS is also producing a handbook with CD-ROM for schools and colleges entitled GIS for Beginners, a pilot version of which was launched in Nepal on the occasion of GIS Day 2000. The transfer of GIS knowledge and skills to the partner institutions has created a strong network that is now acting as the foundation for continuing growth throughout the region.

GIS Data Management
One of the major challenges in the application of GIS in the region is the availability of data. Even the existing data are difficult to use as they are in different reference systems and have inadequate information about the projection systems adopted. Besides, there are problems in integrating the socioeconomic data with the biophysical data due to the different spatial units adopted for data collection. MENRIS is working to come up with a spatial framework for consistent data acquisition and aggregation. To fill some gaps in the lack of foundation data covering the whole region, the database development activities at MENRIS now have a regional perspective. It is working towards the development of a Regional Geographic Information Infrastructure (RGII) for increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of relevant geographic data across the region.

Application development
In order to develop applications to deal with real problems of the HKH, the training programmes has been focussed to four pertaining issues of sustainable mountain development – Basic Infrastructure and Facility Planning; Mountain Agriculture and Land Use Planning; Monitoring, Assessment and Planning of Mountain Natural Resources; and Slope Stability Analysis and Hazard Mapping. Several case studies have been undertaken by partner institutions in collaboration with ICIMOD which demonstrate how GIS applications can be used in mountain-specific situations. Some examples are: Planning for agriculture and land-use management in Duilang County, Tibet; Biodiversity conservation and assessment in the eastern Indian Himalayas, India; Municipal-level GIS for Kirtipur, Nepal; and Mass movement and landslide hazards in sub-Himalayan ranges, Muree, Pakistan.

Resource Centre and Clearinghouse
MENRIS envisages to become the resource centre and a clearinghouse for disseminating the knowledge, technology and support for GIS activities in the region. With the use of latest information and communication technologies, it is working towards reaching a wider audience in the region which are otherwise inaccessible.

Challenges in the HKH
MENRIS is aware of the challenges that lie ahead, and therefore, since its inception, it has relied on strong relationships with the partner institutions in the regional member countries of ICIMOD. The partnership initiative was designed to extend the functional capabilities of national institutions by developing mutually-supportive relationships. These relationships focused initially on training and dissemination of GIS/RS. Ultimately, MENRIS seeks to develop a robust, productive GIS/RS environment to attain the common goals of an accurate information base, which can then be used for management and monitoring of the natural resource base and the environment in the region. There are many difficulties to be overcome, both technical and practical, to work at a resolution fine enough to model the high spatial variability and diversities of the mountains. A lot has to be done before all the people and institutions working for the common goal of sustainable development in the region can work from a single GIS platform.

ICIMOD is working in one of the toughest regions of the world. To work at the regional level is no way an easy task in view of the tough ground realities such as data inaccessibility, technology constraints and a non-conducive political atmosphere in most of the countries. However, ICIMOD has been able to bring visible impacts in HKH region in terms of generating awareness on GIS technology and building a GIS community in the regional countries. ICIMOD’s efforts in this regard has been duly recognised with the prestigious President’s Award at the 2001 ESRI User Conference (figure5). ICIMOD’s substantial work, research, and dedication to GIS education in the last decade are reflected in this award (see box).


  • ICIMOD, 1998. Mountains 2000 and Beyond: Second Regional Collaborative Programme for Sustainable Development of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (RCPII). International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu.
  • Jodha, 1992. Global Changes and Environmental Risks in Mountain Ecosystems. Mountain Farming Systems Discussion Paper Series No. 23, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu.
  • Mool, P.K., Bajracharya, S.R., Joshi, S.,P., 2001. Inventory of Glaciers, Glacial Lakes and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods – Nepal, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu (in press).
  • Papola, T.S. 2001. Poverty in Mountain Areas of HKH Region: Some Basic Issues in Measurement, Diagnosis and Alleviation, Internal discussion paper, ICIMOD
  • SoE-Nepal, 2001 State of the Environment – Nepal, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu.
  • United Nations, 1998. Report on the Secretary General; Coordination, Programme and Other Questions: Proclamation of an International Year of Mountains.