There is a great divide between the youth in the mountains and those in the plains. Even skilled and educated mountain youth have fewer opportunities to earn a decent standard of living, largely because of the difficult mountain terrain and climatic conditions and the marginalization of mountain-specific issues in development policies. This is driving the younger generation, especially men, away from their mountain villages. Women, children, and the elderly – with little financial autonomy or social agency – are left to manage the resources that are the lifeblood of billions downstream. In Nepal, more than 1,400,000 youth (nearly 14% of the total youth population) have migrated abroad for employment and education. Among them, more than 90 percent are men and more than 60 percent are 16–25 years old.
This migration trend is observable in mountain communities in the HKH, and it is placing socioeconomic and ecological stress on rapidly growing mountain cities and villages. Adding to the fact that climate change impacts have been found to be more pronounced at higher elevations, this drain in capable and skilled workforce – custodians of natural resources – has led to increased incidents of abandoned agricultural land, land degradation, and forest fires in mountain regions.
The very fabric of the mountain society is under stress. These communities possess rich indigenous knowledge, cultural values, and ancient traditions, which are shaped by their natural environments. As mountain communities empty out, these ancient cultures are eroding. In the search for better lives, the youth are compelled to look past these threats to their identity and environment.
Thus, investments in human development targeting adolescents and the youth are critical. The Youth Development Index, developed by the Commonwealth Secretariat, identifies five domains that are critical to youth development: education, health, employment, and civic and political participation. A mountain development approach that focuses on these domains could help alleviate the harsh living conditions and disrupt the out-migration of mountain youth.
Improved access to basic, technical, and vocational education is fundamental for self-sustenance in the mountains. We need more curriculums focusing on mountain issues. ICIMOD’s Himalayan University Consortium (HUC) is leading the Sustainable Mountain Development Curriculum-Building Task Force to promote education and knowledge co-production regarding sustainable mountain development in Hindu Kush Himalaya. Earlier this year, the task force held its inception meeting in Bhutan where university representatives from all eight HKH countries participated. They are currently preparing an implementation strategy.
An educated, empowered workforce will require resources, infrastructure, and opportunities in place to effect change. The decentralization of governance structures would help resources reach small pockets of societies, and mountain communities could thrive if these resources are prudently invested in creating infrastructure and an environment for tourism and sustainable development. Likewise, developing niche mountain products and promoting environmental entrepreneurship can offer livelihoods for the mountain youth. ICIMOD’s Support to Rural Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation in the Himalayas (Himalica) initiative worked on diversifying income and livelihood options by developing value chains of niche mountain products and services. The five-year initiative, which ended in early 2018, has demonstrated multiple examples to indicate that youth retention in the mountains is possible through conscious, collaborative efforts.
ICIMOD’s Resilient Mountain Solutions (RMS) Initiative focuses on strengthen ‘mountainpreneurship’ among HKH youth, and is currently grooming youth entrepreneurs from selected start-ups in Bhutan through systematic capacity development and mentorship. Likewise, the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Capability for the Hindu Kush Himalaya (REEECH) Initiative is actively working to scale up of climate-resilient sustainable energy markets, industries, and innovation customized for mountainous areas of the HKH.
With the current climate crisis, the need to rethink the way we consume and produce things has become more urgent than ever. Our decisions will affect today’s youth more than any other demographic, yet ironically, youth participation and visibility are nominal in decision-making processes on climate action and mountain development. In spite of this, the youth are a powerful voice, and we can sense the tide changing. Over half of the world's population is under 30 years old, and they have begun shaping social and economic innovations, challenging social norms, and breaking new ground. We have seen some passionate and inspiring youth activists rising up to tackle some critical issues of our time. Just one Greta Thunberg is capable of moving mountains. The global school strikes for the climate that took place in over 150 countries is evidence of the strength of coordinated youth activism. At the first-ever UN Youth Climate Summit, more than 500 young people from 60 countries participated in a dialogue to discuss climate change impacts. We need the mountain youth to become agents of change and lead the way to a sustainable future.
From 2010 to 2017, ICIMOD organized youth forums for young professionals in its regional member countries to build their technical capacity and leadership skills, and enhance their knowledge on the most critical mountain development issues. ICIMOD is also supporting a new generation of young scientists and providing them opportunities to generate technical data to help influence policy and development in the HKH. Young postgraduate or PhD students in the fields of atmospheric and cryospheric sciences are encouraged to establish local expertise and respond to key research questions for national and regional development . ICIMOD’s Himalayan University Consortium (HUC) has been leading the effort in fostering an effective and sustainable network of universities through its fellows programme.
The youth hold the power to bring about lasting change in society. We need systems to ensure that the younger generation has the capabilities and opportunities to define their futures and spur innovations for a safer, cleaner, more equitable tomorrow. Being at the top of the world, changes happen among mountain communities before they happen anywhere else. The youth should be at the vanguard against the changes disrupting mountain resources, cultures, and dynamics. Mountains matter for the youth – and they should be able to shape and move mountains to secure their future.
This is the message issued by David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD