The Roof of the World is in Need of Repair

The acronym is the enemy of understanding. One on its own is bad enough, but a whole string of them, beaded haphazardly together, is a recipe for incoherence. Fortunately, I am able to expertly decipher all but the most obscure of initialized titles, monikers, headings and labels.

Yet any obstacle to comprehension must be a bad thing if you think that your message is of paramount importance. That hasn’t stopped a confederation of learned souls using not one, but multiple cryptic acronyms worthy of the Sunday Post crossword. That particular weekend puzzler is an exercise in bewilderment, in and of itself.

ICIMOD cleverly conceals the tongue-twisting name of an important directorate charged with the study of a place on Earth that seems mythically wild and impenetrably enigmatic to western minds. The region I am talking about is the Himalayan Hindu Kush and the organisation in question is the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (viz. ICIMOD).

This is the same Hindu Kush immortalized by travel writer Eric Newby in ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, a book which sought to demystify the Himalayas but only succeeded in making firing the imaginative synapses even further.

In fact, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is a biozone that covers 3,500 sq. km over all, or part of, eight countries including Afghanistan, Bangla Desh, Bhutan, China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Nepal. It is a dynamic environment, constantly in a state of physical change, consisting largely of young mountain ranges that are still developing.

The HKH is also a massive watershed for the ten large Asian river systems of the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan).

It is, therefore, the primary source of water, which supports wildlife, regulates climate, governs the landscape and provides a subsistence livelihood to a population of around 240 million people in the region.

In order, to really grasp its importance in global terms it’s worth remembering that the massive basins of these rivers provide water to 1.9 billion people, a fourth of the world’s population. Much of this water is preserved in snow and ice cover that extends for over 35,110 Contained within this frozen body is 3,735 of perpetual snow and ice.

Now, ICOMOD ( is not in the business of simply gathering statistics for their own sake. This information sets the scene for an holistic evaluation of HKH, summarized and published recently as the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assesment Report (HIMAP). The actual report runs to over 500 pages and is available to download at the HIMAP website ( It is also usefully condensed in the Summary booklet, which is available on request, and is sent to recipients from Kathmandu.

By the way, I hope you’re beginning to see what I mean about acronyms.

There are sixteen chapters in the booklet and they examine everything from Climate Change to Biodiversity, Food Security and Air Pollution. I was first alerted to this report by a feature in the Guardian newspaper that seized on the implications of climate change and drew a line across the pages to the disaster scenarios discussed in separate chapters.

I am always suspicious of cherry-picked reports, and my reading of the HIMAP summary alights upon a more perplexing feature of the ICOMOD’s imperatives. This is the repeated use and emphasis of the three most incompatible words in the English language: sustainability, development and prosperity.

The HIMAP report does discuss the potentially catastrophic confluence of globing warming and melting ice cap mountaintops very seriously. The lead authors and contributing authors consisted of numerous leading scientists working on the ground in these range countries.

They and their 125 review editors, and their eight person steering committee agree with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that global temperatures are, at best, going to stay at current levels, in which case risk of a catastrophe of disastrous proportions is ‘medium’. Any further increases in global temperatures are frankly unthinkable for us all, but the prevailing view is that it will happen and that regions such as HKH will feel the effects most keenly.

Yet, this is not a climate change report. It is an assessment of cross-border development goals that seek to provide people with a sustainable existence, economic ‘prosperity’ while at the same time addressing environmental management and the conservation of biodiversity. These might seem like laudable goals but they are built on a lie that humanity has been telling itself for more than thirty years – that we can have our cake and eat it.

This exemplified most clearly in the use of the phrase ‘ecosystem services’, another name for ‘natural capital, that seeks to justify the preservation of nature in mercantile terms. These risible buzzwords come and go, having been used and abused by all and sundry. Yet ‘sustainability’ persists, as if it is as manifest as the ground beneath our feet, while ‘development’ is couched as a salient feature of the human condition.

The HIMAP report is the kind of document that is placed with bowed heads before autocratic governments, in the hope that some of the better ideas will percolate through. Much of the language is that of appeasement, although the narrative does get bolder when discussing the truly toxic air pollution that plagues the Indo-Gangetic plain in Chapter 10, innocuously entitled ‘Air Pollution in the HKH’.

There is a hint of apocalypse about the consequences of accelerated, but largely ungoverned industrial development in the East. If it is meant to frighten the generals, then we have to hope it succeeds, for levels of pollution ten times higher that is considered safe surely amounts to nothing less than a slow genocide.

Don’t get me wrong here. ICOMOD is an umbrella organisation that provides a necessary platform for the serious oversight of an environment in the balance. Sustainable solutions are possible at a local level, and there are many examples on both the HIMAP and ICOMOD websites, but it isn’t realistic as an overarching strategy because it is open to abuse, appropriation and deconstruction. Sustainability has to be underpinned by something that humanity has yet to develop – a collective conscience over its hitherto rapacious use of natural resources.

I have often thought of the Himalayas, and the Hindu Kush in particular, as a pristine natural resource, peopled by snow leopards and tahr. I have always known that such thoughts are illusory. Peter Mathieson, in his romantic book about the apex predator with the luxurious fur coat, wrote about his shock and disappointment at the famous wildlife scientist, George Schaller, who casually discarded an empty ration tin on the mountain without so much as a backward look. The magnificent Himalayan Tahr, so seamlessly a part of every rocky crook and crevice, is now a feral trophy animal roaming New Zealand for the benefit of armed hunters. So much for the ‘nature-lovers’ in our midst.

Damien Carrington, writing in the Guardian ( , described HIMAP as a “landmark report”, but it is essentially pretty obsequious stuff in its underlying narrative. It is well-intentioned, but ultimately no different from dozens of similar presentations that wave sustainability around like a genetically modified carrot. There is, however, no big stick with which to threaten rogue governments and corporations, other than class action in the courts or open revolt.

What in any case, is the penalty for stealing the future from unborn generations? It was a question asked in 1962, when Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’, and I have to say that asking it every day for more than forty years is getting me down.

In a world where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the authors of the HIMAP booklet and its capacious parent volume appear to be shouting into the void. Perhaps, their words will echo back as the acronym, SOS, which, in this case, could easily stand for ‘Sink Or Swim’. This is because there is nothing in the attitude of ruling elites to suggest that they see ‘sustainability’ as anything but a euphemism; a green light to carry on ‘developing’, regardless of the fate of others.

As for the Guardian, they should write about these things in their proper context, or else not bother. Climate change is not the driver of calamity, it is Homo sapiens that is at the wheel. There can be no proper response to environmental alteration without recognition that a benefit without cost isn’t a remotely resolvable equation.