Wetlands include lakes, marshes, peatlands, wet grasslands, streams, glacier lakes, and rivers, and are ecologically critical water resources. They are found in a broad range of categories within various landforms throughout the Himalayan region. Wetlands store water, feed groundwater aquifers, trap sediments, and recycle nutrients. Wetlands also support high biological and cultural diversity and provide many important ecological functions and services to sustain livelihoods in the mountains as well as in the populous, economically and agriculturally valuable areas downstream. Wetlands foster vegetation growth, which lessens soil erosion and thus contribute to stabilising mountain landscapes. However, wetlands are under widespread pressure and are generally in a state of decline.
A significant aspect of the wetlands in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region is the great variation in altitude, terrain, and water location throughout the mountain area. High altitude wetlands (HAWs) are of particular interest. Many high altitude wetlands are sacred places for local people; many are important staging points for migratory birds; and many host endemic fish and amphibians. High altitude wetlands such as peatlands are considered of special interest for several reasons including their role as water regulators that are important for the productivity of high altitude rangelands; and as crucial carbon ‘sinks’. Both these functions are at risk from the impacts of climate change. Moreover, climate change is also leading to melting of ice and snow resources and shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers, which is resulting in the formation and expansion of glacial lakes. The increased volume of melt water in some high altitude wetlands constitutes a threat to people’s lives and livelihoods through catastrophic flooding and landslides. There is also a threat from glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which occur when the build-up of melt-water breaks through the unstable dam at the lake edge, causing destructive torrents and floods in downstream areas.
The Convention on Wetlands, or Ramsar Convention, has recognised the importance of regional cooperation in achieving effective implementation. Ramsar has adopted recommendations and resolutions that encourage development of regional initiatives, one of which has been established in the Himalayas. The Himalayan Wetlands Initiative now has a draft Strategy (September 2008) that member country representatives have agreed to develop further towards regional endorsement. The Himalayan Wetlands Initiative Strategy (HWIS) underlines the fact that high altitude wetlands issues have previously been neglected. ‘Inventory and assessment of high altitude wetlands services and values’ is highlighted as a priority issue, and ‘Promote joint needs-based research, particularly for high altitude wetlands and related river basins’ is defined as a specific objective. ICIMOD continues to be the coordinating body of the Himalayan Initiative.