Leadership Profile: Dr Pema Gyamtsho, newly appointed Director General ICIMOD

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) announced in July that they appointed Dr Pema Gyamtsho as their new Director General as of 15th October 2020.

Dr Gyamtsho has over three decades of leadership experience in environment and sustainability, agricultural research, natural resource management and planning, and other areas, and has served the Royal Government of Bhutan as Minister of Agriculture and Forests. His appointment as Director General marks his return to ICIMOD. He worked previously with the Centre, both with the Governing Board as a representative and observer of Bhutan, and in a senior-level position, during which he travelled throughout the region.

“I had the opportunity to see rural mountain areas and connect with communities there. I’ve seen both the challenges and the opportunities,” said Dr Gyamtsho.

Dr Gyamtsho has a longstanding link with the Centre, but his connection with the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region runs deeper. Dr Gyamtsho will be the first ICIMOD Director General who is from one of the eight regional member countries the Centre represents.

“In a way I am breaking a ‘glass ceiling,’” Dr Gyamtsho said. “I was born and brought up in Bhutan, in a remote village that shares many of the same conditions as other areas. It gives me empathy for the region. I am familiar with the socio-economic, cultural and the geophysical conditions as well as the political sensitivities within the region. I have a working knowledge of many of the languages and dialects spoken in many of the regional member countries and ethnic groups, which is an advantage when working with these communities.”

Underlining Dr Gyamtsho’s affinity for the region was the fact that he was speaking from a farm in his home village in Bhutan, where he is producing a variety of crops including buckwheat, mustard, beans, turnips and cabbages.

“I’m doing my part to contribute to food security here at this time of crisis created by COVID-19,” he said. “There are many grains and vegetables that we can grow ourselves, rather than depend on food coming from other regions.”

hindu kush himalaya mountains

Understanding life in the ‘Third Pole’

“When you talk about the HKH region,” explains Dr Gyamtsho, “it cannot be in isolation from the upstream and downstream areas.”

The HKH region extends over 3,500 kilometres and eight countries. It has the world’s tallest mountain peaks—including Mt Everest and K2—and feeds ten major river basins. It is often referred to as the “Third Pole” because it contains the Earth’s largest reserve of snow and ice outside of the North and South poles. While the region is home to roughly 240 million people, a wider 1.9 billion (one-quarter of the world’s population) up and downstream depend indirectly on the region’s resources for food, energy, clean air and livelihoods.

“Ecosystems in the region range from snow-capped mountains to areas dominated by permafrost, to alpine, then dry arid deserts, to narrow valleys,” said Dr Gyamtsho. “Culturally, it is home to all of the major beliefs and faiths around the world, and the home of philosophers including Gandhi and Confucius. The Hindu Kush Himalayan region has shaped the many groups, languages and cultures here; all of those are rooted in the mountains. The people have their passions, and love for the mountains, and they all have reasons not to leave,” said Dr Gyamtsho.

Despite the immense resources, biodiversity, geophysical and cultural diversity the region provides (ICIMOD fittingly calls it the “Pulse of the Planet”), communities here face pervasive poverty and gender inequality. As climate change accelerates, people in the mountains are faced with more extreme weather, disasters and degrading ecosystems and natural resources.

“Options available to mountain communities are limited,” explained Dr Gyamtsho. “Many are dependent on agriculture, which is limited by the size of landholding, the area’s topography, access to irrigation, and by altitude and climate.

“There is income from people moving out of their areas to work in other regions. Women, as a result, are at the forefront of bearing the burden of supporting families and the elderly, because it is mostly young men who emigrate. We need to reverse that trend.

“Tourism in the area has been a major source of alternative employment and income. But because of the impacts of climate change and the coronavirus, the tourism industry right now is completely shut down and many migrant workers have returned home. So they are not able to earn enough to support their families, and this has accelerated problems such as access to healthcare, quality education, good nutrition and clean water.”

Vision for ICIMOD’s future

ICIMOD serves the mountain communities within its eight regional member countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan—through research and knowledge-sharing to find innovative and effective solutions to the area’s pressing issues.

As he takes up leadership of the Centre, Dr Gyamtsho has an ambitious vision for ICIMOD “as a globally recognised centre of excellence on mountains and the mountain people of the HKH.” First, however, he hopes to identify and establish common grounds within the framework of the geopolitical sensitivities in the region.

“Many people in remote mountain areas are suffering the same issues and challenges: lack of access to nutritious food, clean water and clean energy further compounded by the negative impacts of climate change. The technology is readily available and affordable, so improving livelihoods and introducing green technology all take priority. We can work together by exchanging good practices and policies,” Dr Gyamtsho said.

himalayas bhutan black necked crane

Dr Gyamtsho hopes for regional member countries to work more closely across borders on issues of climate change and protecting the region’s biodiversity. “The biggest call is for countries to cooperate on climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. There are many disasters in the region as a result of climate change, and disasters know no political boundaries. Regional member countries can come together and work on monitoring and data sharing, to have advance forecasting and warning of disasters. This is one area I would really like to focus on,” he said.

He also called for more transboundary landscape and ecosystem management. “There are rare bird species for example, the black-necked crane. It migrates to China in summer, and India and Bhutan in winter. We need transboundary cooperation to manage and preserve such species.”

Dr Gyamtsho feels that most countries are willing to work together on information and knowledge sharing. As he works to further shape ICIMOD as a global centre of excellence, he will focus on four measures, or hallmarks of excellence:

“First, ownership by ICIMOD’s regional member countries has to be strengthened,” Dr Gyamtsho said. By building the relationships, trust and confidence in ICIMOD, Dr Gyamtsho believes that regional member countries will champion initiatives to tackle the needs and priorities of their communities.

“Our services and expertise will have to be in high demand by member countries and stakeholders,” explained Dr Gyamtsho. “The level of demand for ICIMOD’s services will also be an indicator.”

Along with greater ownership and demand, Dr Gyamtsho said he will look at ICIMOD’s funding status, as he sees their demand for and delivery of services as closely linked to greater support from countries and donors.

Dr Gyamtsho says he will focus on the Centre’s delivery of climate science in the mountains, sharing more expertise in climate adaptation, mitigation, monitoring, data collection and information sharing.

“A final indicator of global excellence,” Dr Gyamtsho said, “is the impact and visibility of our representation at global events and fora like the UNFCCC and UNFCBD. I would like ICIMOD to continue and strengthen its presence at such events in leading regional and global disourses on mountain issues.”

Adapting to the challenge of COVID-19

Dr Gyamtsho acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has created serious challenges for ICIMOD’s future.

“For some time, the work culture will be affected. There will be less opportunity to work together, interact and understand each other. Mobility will be limited within the organisation and to visit partners and work sites. There will be an impact on funding. We will have to find a strategy to work under these conditions.”

In the near future, Dr Gyamtsho said, the negatives abound. But he also sees many opportunities.

“The need to work together on climate change is unquestionable. This has been a wake-up call for the region; we’ve seen the positive impacts of reduced emissions,” he said. “There are reports of people being able to get clear views of the Himalayas from afar and water getting cleaner in some of the most polluted rivers in the region. The air has also become purer and people are not having to use oxygen bags. There are many learnings we can take forward and a compelling need for an organisation like ICIMOD.”