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International Mountain Day: The mountains that provide sustenance for a nation

By Shabbir Mir

GILGIT: For the 60 years of his life, the mountains have provided for Ghulam Din, just as they have done for his ancestors before him for centuries.

Sitting in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range on International Mountain Day, Din recalls the time he spent in the mountains with his parents.

“I used to run up and down the mountains, shepherding cattle. On way back home, I would collect and bring dry wood for heating and cooking,” Din reminisced.

Like Din, a large proportion of Gilgit-Baltistan’s residents depend on the mountains for their survival including from firewood, to stone, to water, to animals for grazing.

Gilgit-Baltistan is home to three of the mightiest mountain ranges including Karakoram, Hindu Kush and the Himalaya with over 20 peaks which are 20,000 feet or higher including the world’s second highest mountain K2.

Scientists say mountains are the source of world’s major rivers and groundwater. According to statistics,  ten of the largest rivers in the world originate from the Hindu Kush and Himalayas alone, supplying water to over 1.35 billion people.

But they also provide a multitude of ecosystem goods and services not just to people living in and around the mountains, but even to those living downstream.

In view of its importance, the International Mountain Day this year was marked to highlight Mountain Cultures. According to a UN report, mountains host communities with ancient cultures and traditions, and are places of religious worship, pilgrimage and rituals all over the world.

The concept of traditional heritage, culture and spirituality is intrinsically linked with peoples’ livelihoods in the mountains, where it is often traditional lifestyles which determine the way people make a living
and subsist.

“Mountains are important because they influence regional and global weather conditions and climate,” said Maisoor Nafees, an assistant professor at Karakoram International University.

“Mountains provide us with many things including medicinal products, food, biodiversity, energy and freshwater,” he said.

Dr Babar Khan, head of the World Wildlife Fund in Gilgit, said that if the regular ‘functioning’ of a mountain ecosystem stays healthy, it regulates climate, air quality, and water flow.

“You can say these are the services which are especially critical to downstream areas.”

However, rapid changes in climate mean the mountains are prone to land degradation, natural disasters and deforestation.

“If you want to know how the mountains are behaving, I’d say they are violent right now,” said Din who generally stays away from debates on climate change.

“There are far more landslides now, and hence more risk of being hit. May be that’s because of the heavy rains which have lashed the region recently.”

Even though mountains in the north of Pakistan may provide for the millions of inhabitants downstream, of late they have exerted equal wrath with floods and landslides. Unless the effects of climate change are combatted, these symptoms would progressively deteriorate.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2016.

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