Strengthening the resilience of mountain regions to climate change

One in eight people worldwide reside in mountainous areas. These regions supply fresh water to half the global population. They are home to numerous plant and animal species found nowhere else. However, these delicate ecosystems face severe threats from climate change. The SDC-funded 'Adaptation@Altitude' project supports four mountain regions by analysing scientific climate change data, developing and replicating locally tailored adaptation strategies, and ensuring that the specific needs of mountain regions are considered in political decision-making processes.

 A series of photographs illustrates the different levels – science, local communities, and international organisations – required to protect mountain regions.

In the 'Adaptation@Altitude' project, the SDC endeavours to utilise scientific data to develop locally tailored adaptation strategies. © Zoinet; MatthewTenBruggen

Switzerland is all too familiar with this issue: thawing permafrost and melting glaciers. Consequently, natural hazards such as flash floods and mudslides, like the 2017 event in Bondo, Graubünden, are increasing. Although mountain communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, their needs are often overlooked in strategies and funding mechanisms. Key reasons are the lack of data on the precise impact of climate change on mountain ecosystems and the under-representation of mountain communities' voices in decision-making processes.

As an Alpine nation with an outstanding research environment, Switzerland is well positioned to assist other mountain regions in adapting to climate change. Moreover, as many of its priority countries for international cooperation (IC) are located in mountainous regions, Switzerland has a unique understanding of their specific needs and challenges.

Four regions, one goal

In 2019, the SDC initiated the supraregional 'Adaptation@Altitude' project, bringing together numerous global, regional and local implementation and research partners. Across four mountainous regions – East Africa, the Andes, the South Caucasus and the Hindu Kush–Himalayas – it supports efforts to develop systemic approaches to enhance the resilience of populations and environments to the adverse effects of climate change. Through more sustainable natural resource utilisation and preventative disaster risk reduction measures, these regions should be able to better mitigate climate change impacts.

Experience from other climate initiatives demonstrates that regional adaptation strategies are particularly effective because communities within a region face similar challenges and often share cross-border resources like water or pasturelands. At the same time, an exchange of knowledge between the different mountain regions makes it possible to discuss difficulties and models for success, to learn from each other, and to speak with one voice in international processes. The expertise of Swiss universities and the prioritised use of digital technologies – a key focus of the IC Strategy 2021–24 – make crucial contributions to accurately measuring and scientifically analysing climate change. To tackle these varied entry points and spheres of action, the project consists of four complementary components.

Component 1: Sound data as a prerequisite for informed actions

 A graphic illustrates the various weather influences affecting mountain areas.
Mountain regions' resilience to weather impacts depends on many factors. Data helps to better recognise the factors. © Zoinet

As climate change manifests itself differently across ecosystems, adaptation strategies must be tailored to local conditions. Closing knowledge gaps about climate change's impacts on mountain regions with sound data is therefore crucial. The Mountain Research Initiative, a scientific network involving the University of Bern, contributes to this endeavour by providing access to data from monitoring stations in the four project regions via a portal.

The data and findings are then published in peer-reviewed journals, deliberated by scientific and practitioner representatives at regional workshops, and integrated into the efforts of international organisations such as the World Meteorological Organization.

Component 2: Strengthening the dialogue between science, practice and politics

 Maps are created in workshops where possible measures and  infrastructures across different regions are recorded.
The exchange of experiences and best practices ultimately leads to concrete ideas and planning tools. © Zoinet

Formulating and implementing systemic adaptation strategies necessitates appropriate framework conditions. Ensuring the voices of mountain communities are heard in planning processes is crucial. However, this has often been overlooked, as their representatives face barriers in accessing decision-making spheres due to geographic isolation and socioeconomic challenges like poverty.

As part of the the project, channels of exchange with policymakers were initiated or strengthened at regional and national levels. This made it possible to incorporate issues relevant to mountain regions in national action plans. In 2022, over 60 representatives (including numerous environmental ministry officials) from six mountain regions convened in Vienna for a workshop. The exchange of experiences fostered joint learning on regional cooperation mechanisms, adaptation strategies, and collaboration bringing together science, practice and policy.

Component 3: Dissemination of scientifically proven adaptation strategies

 Four men build a simple but resilient wooden dam on a mountainside.
Those directly affected often already know simple and effective adaptation strategies. A global database makes this knowledge available to everyone. © Zoinet

People working in agriculture experience climate change daily and possess extensive practical knowledge on adapting to weather and climatic conditions. By systematically collecting, analysing, and disseminating this knowledge, other communities and regions can benefit from these insights. In partnership with the University of Geneva, a global database named the 'Solutions Portal' has been created for this purpose. It documents and scientifically evaluates adaptation strategies with potential for effective implementation across different contexts. Currently, the platform has over 100 entries. In certain regions like the Andes since 2022, 'communities of practice' have emerged with support from international organisations such as the United Nations Environment Programme, facilitating the exchange of approaches, challenges, and lessons among various mountain region stakeholders.

Component 4: Anchoring the needs of mountain regions in global climate forums

 High-ranking UN officials celebrate the adoption of the 6th report on climate change 2023
The needs of mountain regions receive comparatively little international attention. The UN 2023-2027 Action Plan aims to change this. © Zoinet

The core tenets of climate policy are established at UN climate negotiations, which are informed, among other factors, by the scientific analyses of the highly influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, the specific needs of mountain regions have thus far not received the attention they warrant in global dialogues, given their importance for the world's fresh water supply and biodiversity.

The wealth of solid data gathered via this project has contributed to exposing these blind spots within climate discourse. For example, for the first time in nearly three decades, the vulnerability of mountain regions to climate change and their specific adaptation strategies featured prominently in the 6th IPCC Report. The project contributed to the UN General Assembly declaring 2025 the International Year of Glacier Preservation and adopting the 2023–27 Action Plan for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions.

Future priorities of the project

An external evaluation in 1 2023 confirmed the coherent interplay of 'Adaptation@Altitude's' four components. There are effective and internationally visible initiatives to strengthen the resilience of mountain regions against climate change. A pivotal factor contributing to the project's success is the broad-based support at local, regional and international levels. Given its ever-increasing relevance amid accelerating climate change, the project will continue under the new IC Strategy 2025–28. The second phase (2024–27) will prioritise the following areas:

  • Consolidation of established knowledge-sharing mechanisms, such as the 'communities of practice'.
  • Scientific assessment of adaptation strategies' effectiveness and analysis of approaches for their systematic, long-term implementation in practice.
  • Pursuit of long-term financing solutions (context-dependent, via regional entities, international organisations, or climate funds) to ensure the project's financial sustainability beyond the SDC's support.

Video: "Adaptation at Altitude - Taking Action in the Mountains"(Zoï Environment Network, 2024)

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