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Adaptation to Glacio-Hydrological Change in High Mountains

The Andes


Climate change is melting mountain glaciers, diminishing snowfields, and changing precipitation patterns in high mountain areas, leading to increases in hydrological hazards and water scarcity as well as impacts on water quality. These hydrological changes have important implications for mountain people, many of whom suffer from poverty, marginalization, and other socio-economic difficulties that limit their ability to adapt effectively to climate-related changes in glacio-hydrological systems.

In response to the significant gaps in our understanding of human adaptation in mountain areas, this dissertation:

  1. Develops an analytical framework for robust adaptation research in high mountain areas.
  2. Uses formal systematic review methods to critically evaluate existing mountain-focused adaptation research and actions vis-à-vis an original typology for the challenge of climate change in high mountain areas.
  3. Conducts a multi-sited, community-level assessment of lived experiences of glacio-hydrological changes in the Nepal Himalayas (upper Manaslu region) and Peruvian Andes (Cordillera Huayhuash region).
  4. Evaluates prospects for meeting community-identified adaptation needs with adaptation support organized through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

These efforts are informed by theoretical insights from glacio-hydrological sciences, human dimensions of climate change research, and socioecological systems thinking, as well as 160 household interviews, 34 key informant interviews, and 4 focus groups conducted in Nepal and Peru.

This dissertation makes substantive contributions to how adaptation is studied in mountain systems as well as what we know about and might do to address growing adaptation needs in high mountain communities.

*Download the full publication from the right-hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Robust adaptation research in high mountains: Integrating the scientific, social, and ecological dimensions of glacio-hydrological change

Insights from diverse strands of research suggest important interdependencies between science, society, and ecosystems, yet integrative approaches to the study of adaptation remain scarce in both mountainous and non-mountainous regions. Using the example of glacio-hydrological change, this chapter outlines key principles for robust mountain-focused adaptation research, providing a template for future studies in glaciated mountain regions and beyond.

Key findings

This chapter outlines three guiding principles for studies intent on supporting the identification, development, and implementation of successful adaptations to changes in mountain glaciers. These studies should:

  • Pay attention to watershed-specific glacio-hydrological conditions.
  • Pay attention to the complex interplay between glacio-hydrological changes and socio-economic and political conditions.
  • Pay attention to interdependencies, feedbacks, and tradeoffs between human and ecological responses to glacio-hydrological change.

This chapter is adapted from an article published in the journal Water. McDowell, G. & Koppes, M. (2017) Robust adaptation research in high mountains: Integrating the scientific, social, and ecological dimensions of glacio-hydrological change. Water 9: 739.

Adaptation action and research in glaciated mountain systems: Are they enough to meet the challenge of climate change?

This chapter engages with the following research questions:

  • What do we know about adaptation action and research in glaciated mountain systems, and are observed efforts enough to meet the challenges of climate-related changes?
  • What are the consequences of shortcomings in these efforts, and what changes are needed to more fully meet the challenge of climate change in glaciated mountain systems?

Key findings

  • Socially-relevant climate-related changes are already manifesting in glaciated mountain systems, with the most commonly documented stimuli for adaptation being hydrological changes related to the degradation of the high mountain cryosphere.
  • The study also revealed the importance of multiple stressors in shaping adaptations, highlighting the influence of broader socio-ecological dynamics on responses to change.
  • Some level of adaptation action exists in the majority of the countries with glaciated mountain ranges, although most actions are concentrated in the Himalayas and Andes. Adaptations involving agricultural and water-related sectors were most common, with reactionary responses to experienced climatic stimuli being the norm.
  • Although the majority of adaptations were carried out without guidance from a formal adaptation plan, increasing engagement from the international community was observed and may signal a shift towards more formal, forward-looking adaptation planning.

This chapter is adapted from an article published in the journal Global Environmental Change. McDowell, G., Huggel, C., Frey, H., Wang, F., Cramer, R., Ricciardi, V. (2019) Adaptation action and research in glaciated mountain systems: Are they enough to meet the challenge of climate change? Global Environmental Change. 54: 19-30

Read a synthesis of this paper here.

Lived experiences of ‘peak water’ in the high mountains of Nepal and Peru

Research on peak water is beginning to inform thinking about the adaptation needs of populations in regions with glacier-influenced hydrological systems. This chapter evaluates this development through an analysis of lived experiences of peak water in high mountain communities in Nepal and Peru.

It examines:

  • Whether a focus on peak water per se provides a sufficient analytical lens for understanding lived experiences of contemporary climate-related hydrological changes as well as.
  • Whether the characteristics of vulnerabilities hypothesized in the glacio-hydrological modeling literature provide an appropriate basis for adaptation planning.

Key findings

  • This chapter reveals patterns of vulnerability within and across high mountain communities that do not follow the characteristics of vulnerability hypothesized in the glacio-hydrological modeling literature.
  • Instead, the study documents socially relevant hydrological changes that are not adequately accounted for when focusing exclusively on long-term changes in glacier-fed river systems as well as the largely social origins of vulnerability to changing hydrological conditions.

From needs to actions: Prospects for planned adaptations in high mountain communities

There is currently little clarity about progress in, and specific opportunities for, matching international adaptation support with adaptation needs in mountain communities at the frontlines of climate change. In response, this chapter examines the architecture of formal adaptation support mechanisms organized through the UNFCCC and how such mechanisms might help to meet adaptation needs in mountain communities.

Key findings

  • This chapter identifies country-specific and generalizable reasons for discordance between idealized pathways of adaptation support from global institutions to local communities, including complications stemming from the bureaucratic nature of formal adaptation mechanisms, the intervening role of the State in delivering aid, and the ways in which these complexities intersect with the specific socio-cultural contexts of mountain communities.
  • This chapter highlights several prospects for increasing the quantity and quality of adaptation support to mountain communities; namely:
    • Formalizing relationships between organizations working in mountain areas and UNFCCC funding entities.
    • Targeting support from funding bodies with mandates specifically relevant to mountain areas.
    • Developing proposals that address the growing challenges faced by Indigenous peoples in a changing climate.
    • Devising adaptation projects that address concurrent priorities related to sustainable development and disaster risk reduction.


This dissertation responded to the research gap in our understanding of human adaptation in mountain areas by advancing understanding of adaptation to glacio-hydrological change in high mountain regions, while also helping to raise the profile of mountain issues in global environmental change research (e.g. through its contributions to the IPCC).

More generally, the dissertation represents a modest but salient contribution to mountain research and the larger endeavor of advancing understanding of mountain systems.


  • The systematic review included only reviewed English-language documents.
  • Although this publication represents the most exhaustive and detailed assessment of adaptation in mountain areas to date, it underestimates the state of adaptation action.
  • The researcher’s engagement with socio-ecological interdependencies and feedbacks was severely constrained.
  • The lived experiences of glaciohydrological change reported may not be comparable to those of other communities in these regions or in other high mountain communities more broadly, particularly those located in the Global North.
  • This dissertation only focused on adaptation support organized through the UNFCCC, yet there is an ever-growing assemblage of other formal adaptation support mechanisms that may be relevant to mountain communities.
  • The context of knowledge production for this dissertation also results in important limitations: founded on ideas rooted in Western scientific traditions and the researcher’s particular socio-cultural background (a Caucasian male, raised in a middle-class family in the United States, and educated at universities in Canada and England).
Research needs and opportunities
  • Need for greater clarity about the conditions under which autonomous adaptations are appropriate and sufficient.
  • Need to know more about best practices for implementing planned adaptations.
  • Widespread vulnerabilities across mountain areas suggest a need to know more about limits to adaptation.
  • Need to improve understanding of interactive effects between climatic and non-climatic drivers of hydrological change.
  • Emic studies (research from the perspective of the subject) that embody the epistemologies and ontologies of mountain people are urgently needed to counterbalance the predominance of etic adaptation research (research from the perspective of the observer) rooted in the western scientific and socio-cultural traditions.
  • The goal of ‘leaving no one behind in mountains’ will require an increase in mountain-focused adaptation research in the Global North.

Suggested citation

Graham McDowell. (2020). Adaptation to Glacio-Hydrological Change in High Mountains [University of British Columbia].

Further reading