19 October 2018

The Third Pole as Complex Socio-Ecological System – Sustainability and Resilience. AFI/IIASA Breakout Session at the Arctic Circle Assembly, Reykjavik, Iceland

The Third Pole region (Hindu-Kush, Pamir, Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau) is a global hotspot region characterized by high levels of geological, ecological and socio-cultural diversities, providing critical life-supporting resources and ecosystem services to two billion people. The Arctic Futures Initiative (AFI) and the Third Pole Environment (TPE) co-organized a breakout session in Reykjavik, the first session organized on the Third Pole region at the Arctic Circle Assembly. 

© K. Everett

© K. Everett

The Third Pole (TP), together with the Arctic and Antarctic, form the majority of the global cryosphere, where temperature recently increased 2-3 times as much as global average, with severe environmental and development consequences. Similar to the North and South poles, building resilience in these regions under increasing climatic, geo-environmental, and societal uncertainties is critical for global sustainability.

The future livelihood and well-being of the population in TP is dependent on collaboration of decision-makers from policy and business, a variety of international organizations working in the region, researchers at the science-policy interface, and naturally local and regional inhabitants.

The breakout session included introductory presentations by panelists with diverse expertise and a lively discussion in interaction with the audience.

As stated by Ailikun, while substantial achievements have been made recently by natural scientists on studying the cryosphere in TP, scientists from all disciplines are needed for co-generating together with other stakeholders evidence-based options towards sustainability to decision-makers. Examples shown by Dipak Gyawali highlighted the importance of understanding the “toad’s eyes” view to respect and incorporate local community innovations in managing natural resources as public goods where the risk burden is not placed mostly on the poor and marginalized in these places with harsh livelihood conditions. An integrated water-food-energy nexus approach is needed for the region, essentially a holistic approach covering the whole complex terrain to prevent the vulnerable communities from being further marginalized.

Based on the outcome of UN Water’s SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation, Eddy Moors stressed the need for capacity development, as only limited progress can be made and investments are at risk without the necessary human and institutional capacity. In order to achieve prosperity in the future, two potential pathways need to be integrated: large-scale sustainable development investment with regional cooperation AND bottom-up investment with local and regional cooperation.

The plan of establishing a national park cluster was presented by Jie Fan, stressing the population increase in the ten nature reserves in Tibet leading to conflict between development and protection of the natural environment. In 2017 over 25 million visitors in Tibet, a 10-fold increase during the past 10 years. The extensive study presented examines how to couple nature reserves and human activities, and how to promote local development, reduce the poverty of herders, protect the Tibetan culture and lifestyle. The results included the preliminary layout of a Third Pole National Park Cluster in China.

Wei Liu stressed the need to build climate and disaster resilience in the Third Pole region due to severe natural disasters and a vicious cycle of climate-poverty trap, as well as increasing geo-environmental and socio-economic-political uncertainties. The complexity of the region involving a large variety of sectors, scales and problems is crystalized in the inability of global flood risk models to reflect local reality and needs of the practitioners. A polycentric risk governance system is needed, which will enable effective self-organization that respect site-specific conditions, through experimentation and learning. It comes down to communication and commitment at the personal and institutional level, with trust as the most critical element of building successful partnership across sectors and scales.

Similar to the Arctic, challenges to the Third Pole region are many, but also opportunities prevail. Creation of multi-stakeholder partnerships and strengthening of regional integration is essential, also what the Third Pole region can learn from the Arctic region, and vice versa.


Ailikun, Director, Third Pole Environment, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences: The Third Pole Environment (TPE)

Dipak Gyawali, Director, Nepal Water Conservation Foundation; Academician, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology; Senior Guest Research Scholar, Risk and Resilience Program (RISK), IIASA; former Minister of Water Resources of Nepal: Interdisciplinarity and Nexus Approach at the Interface of Technology and Society: Assuring Benefits to the Marginalized

Eddy Moors, Rector and Professor, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education: Sustainable Water

Jie Fan, Professor, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences: Discussion on the National Parks Cluster in Tibetan Plateau

Wei Liu, Research Scholar, Risk and Resilience Program (RISK), IIASA: Multi-Stakeholder Partnership and Polycentric Governance for Climate and Disaster Resilience in the Third Pole

Chair: Anni Reissell, IIASA & University of Helsinki

© Karen E.

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Last edited: 13 December 2018


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