Why Mountains?

Mountains Matter

    Mountains serve as the essential “water towers” on every continent. Every day, over half of humanity relies on mountains for freshwater. All major rivers of the world begin in mountains. Billions of people downstream rely on mountain water for drinking, sanitation, irrigation and energy production. With nearly 9 million people, Lima, Peru’s capital, is the second-largest desert city in the world, after Cairo. And it relies heavily on water from the Andean highlands. Rivers in Asia’s Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain region alone supply freshwater to more than 200 million people living in the region and 1.3 billion people living downstream. These clean water sources and the people who depend upon them are now at risk. Melting glaciers, changing precipitation patterns and increasing tourism and development are some of the threats to mountain water.
    An amazing variety of wild animals and plants depend on mountains to survive. Mountain ranges are havens for the Andean cat, guanacos, vicuña, Andean bear, condors, snow leopards, red panda, and hellbender salamanders, to name just a few. Mountain ecosystems sustain innumerable plant varieties that range from orchids to apples, quinoa to Himalayan yew and Quenual trees. 45,000 plant species have been found in the tropical Andes alone. Nearly a quarter of global forest cover is in mountain regions. Of the planet’s 34 terrestrial biodiversity “hotspots,” 25 are in mountains.
    Mountains are home to many ancient, indigenous cultures that maintain a wealth of traditional knowledge and practices. Mountains harbor unique cultural traditions that have been shaped by their natural environments for thousands of years. These traditions and local knowledge, however, are at risk from the diluting influences of globalization and tourism. Outmigration of local people to urban areas is also a threat to ancient cultures. The exodus of young people, especially young men, is decimating some mountain villages leaving only children and the elderly behind to carry on as best they can.
    Mountains collect, channel and store freshwater and are essential to the Earth’s water cycle. They are also key to regulating the global climate and vital to other ecological cycles of the planet. For example, the Hindu Kush-Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau are widely known as the “Third Pole” because their ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. But rising temperatures are disturbing the balance of snow, ice and water in mountainous areas threatening millions of mountain people and billions downstream. Precipitation amounts and seasonality are changing worldwide and exreme weather events are increasing in intensity. Climate change models predict greater relative rises in temperature as altitude increases.
    Mountains are frequently at the nexus of international borderlands, poor and marginalized ethnic minorities and invaluable natural resources. At any given time a large proportion of international and internal conflicts are in mountains. Conflicts over water have increased four-fold in the last decade. This global trend will likely continue with mountain water sources front and center. Risks of conflict are high both internationally and within countries.
    Mountains are home to many ancient, indigenous cultures that maintain a wealth of traditional knowledge and practices. Ancient cultures of the Peruvian Andes live on in spiritual and cultural practices that continue today. Major religions regard some mountains as sacred. For example, Mount Kailas in Tibet – near the sources of the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers – is considered sacred by five religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Bon.

Current Threats

Mountains don’t receive the level of attention they deserve for the services they provide to humankind. And the threats to mountain people and ecosystems are growing, especially due to climate change. In response, we work hand-in-hand with mountain communities to provide practical, innovative, on-the-ground solutions for conservation problems and for more sustainable livelihoods. In partnership with a wide variety of non-profit, government, academic, and private sector partners, our model programs promote natural resource conservation, sustainable economic development, climate change adaptation and resilience, and cultural heritage preservation. 
  • Climate Change

    Climate Change

    Mountains are extremely sensitive to global climate change. More extreme changes are predicted in highlands over time than at lower elevations. Experts predict that for every degree of warming in lowland areas, mountain regions will warm an average of 1.8 degrees. In mountains worldwide glaciers and snowfields are retreating faster than predicted. Droughts, floods and landslides are more frequent. Pathogens and exotic species are appearing at higher elevations. Ecosystem and human health, along with crops and livestock, are at risk. Mountain communities need help adapting to rapid change. We all need for mountain ecosystems to be healthy so that they can buffer the effects of climate change on water resources and serve as refuges for species on the move.
  • Water Scarcity

    Water Scarcity

    Millions of people worldwide depend on water that comes from mountains–both upstream and down. As climate change progresses, the world needs people who live in mountains to sustainably manage this water close to the source–to protect the supply and quality for all who depend on it. Mountain communities are better able to steward local water sources if their livelihoods and economies are more resilient. More than 900 million people live in mountains and most rely directly on their ecosystem for a stable, predictable water supply. The survival of mountain people is intrinsically tied to mountain water sources.
  • Environmental Degradation

    Environmental Degradation

    Mountain ecosystems produce food and water, are key to regulating the global climate and vital to the water cycle of the planet. Mountain habitats become degraded over time due to many factors–glacier retreat, changes in precipitation and shifts away from traditional practices and technologies, to name just a few. Wildlife species are at risk of extinction and huge areas of mountain habitats have been lost or degraded with serious consequences for ecological services. For example, loss of forests and wetlands can increase risks of landslides and floods. This loss also reduces water storage capacity that in turn sustains river flows from mountains during dry seasons. In addition, mountains provide habitat for many pollinator species at risk, which are critical to both highland and lowland ecosystems.
  • Food Insecurity

    Food Insecurity

    Levels of poverty and hunger increase with elevation. Mountain communities tend to be worse off than lowlanders–even within the same country. Contributing factors are isolation, poor government services, and ethnic and social marginalization. Roughly half of rural mountain people (329 million) don’t have enough to eat:
    • 47% of rural mountain populations in developing countries
    • 57% of all people living above 4,500 meters (14,700 feet)
    These figures are underestimates, because they are based on sea level daily food requirements. People living in high, cold environments need 2-3 times more calories to stay warm.
  • Poverty


    Overall, mountain households in many nations are poorer and more food-insecure than lowland households in the same country. To overcome a chronic lack of access to services, education and income-earning opportunities, mountain families need sustainable, mountain-adapted livelihood options that capitalize on their communities’ unique cultures and ecosystems.Food security is getting worse in mountains–even as it improves globally. Mountains contain 13% of the global population but nearly 40% of the world’s hungry.
  • Migration


    Many mountain communities are emptying out. Limited economic and educational opportunities are driving the younger generation–especially men–to migrate away from their mountain homes, often to foreign countries. When young men leave mountain villages, women, children and the elderly are left behind to manage as best they can. This out-migration trend has increased worldwide in recent years. It is now stressing the livability and sustainability of rapidly growing mountain cities. In some parts of the world, climate refugees are an added pressure as they move up in elevation to escape scorching lowlands.
  • Cultural Erosion

    Cultural Erosion

    Preserving ancient cultures in mountainous regions is just as important as conserving their natural environment and improving mountain economies. Mountain communities, frequently made up of ethnic minorities, harbor thousand year old cultural traditions shaped by natural environments. Mountains are home to numerous indigenous cultures speaking over 1,000 different languages. Mountain people are the stewards of sites that have invaluable historical and cultural importance–from temples and sacred monuments to ancient forts. The traditional knowledge of these ancient cultures can be lost as mountain communities empty out. But traditional knowledge is now more valuable than ever as climate change forces us to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
  • Natural Disasters

    Natural Disasters

    Mountain glaciers are receding at a faster pace than previously predicted. At least 600 glaciers have disappeared completely in recent times, affecting water storage and increasing risks of glacial lake outburst floods. This trend is accelerating. Precipitation amounts and seasonality are changing, and extreme weather events are increasing in intensity. The risks of landslides, floods and drought have increased, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the highlands and downstream.
  • Political Insecurity

    Political Insecurity

    In the year 2000, 18 of the world’s 28 armed conflicts (65%) took place in mountainous areas. Today, Afghanistan, Tibet, Sinkiang, Mexico, Colombia, Yemen, and many other mountain regions are conflict ridden. In the last decade, conflicts over water have increased four-fold. This global trend will likely continue with mountain water sources front and center. Risks are high both internationally and within countries. For instance, in 2015, 75% of social conflicts in Peru were related to access and control over mountain water, often between rural communities and mining companies.
Since 1972 The Mountain Institute has partnered with remote mountain communities in the highest, longest and oldest mountains of the world. We work together to conserve ecosystems, develop sustainable livelihoods and protect unique mountain cultures.