By Zafar Iqbal
Environmentalists and scientists have urged India and Pakistan to free the world’s highest battleground of Himalayan Siachen glaciers from military forces to avoid devastating ecological disasters.
“From human and environmental perspective, it is an expensive and tragic standoff on Siachen between two countries where either is too proud to back off unilaterally as it should,” says Dr. Shreekant Gupta, Associate Professor, Delhi School of Economics, at University of Delhi.
He believes that the environmental impact is highly damaging and there is no strategic/military payoff either contrary to what jingoists would argue. Scientists blame the military presence for increased temperature rising of Himalayan glaciers.
“If Pakistan and India could settle their differences there would be no need to have troops exposed to such hazards”, says Richard Armstrong, Senior Research Scientist of Department of Geography at University of Colorado.
The appeal comes in the aftermath of deadliest burial of 140 Pakistani soldiers trapped under avalanches in disputed Kashmir state.
In the early hours of April 7, thousands of tones of ice, rock and snow crashed down onto the headquarters of one of Pakistan’s army units 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) up in the Siachen mountains.
Rescuers are still searching for survivors beneath rubble that spans one-square-kilometer at the Siachen glacier, in a region long known as a flashpoint between India and Pakistan.
But two weeks after the calamity flattened the Gayari rear base, no victims have been found.
Bad weather and chilling winds are posing difficulties in rescue activities but could not affect the pace of work at site. A total of 503 military and civilian personnel along with 25 heavy machines are busy in a 24 hours search operation.
Pakistani army says that the excavation work is being expanded with help of men and material. Till the filing of this report a probing search was carried out at three spots.
In the initial search some life jackets, pieces of Igloo and medicines have been found 600 Meters from the original location hit by the avalanches.
Rescuers think that the items recovered showed the magnitude of destruction and nature of the avalanche.
“The entire process of initiation/striking down of avalanche took less than five seconds,” believe Pakistani Hydrological experts.
Siachen glacier is located on the northern tip of Kashmir, a Himalayan region which is divided between Pakistan and India. It account for nearly 3 percent of the world’s area of ice outside the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.
The 77-kilometre-long glacier traverses the Line of Control, the de facto border separating Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, at a height of over 6,300 meters.
The Siachen conflict began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 49-mile-long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the area. Pakistan also deployed its troops.
Damage caused by conflict
According to scientists almost 28 year long presence military in the most fragile zone is causing melting of Siachen.
They believe that because of establishment of permanent cantonments on either side of Saltoro ridge, Himalayan glaciers is being badly affected. For instance, cutting and melting of glacial ice through application of chemical, daily dumping of more than a ton of chemicals, metals, organic and human waste, daily heavy air traffic to advance camps and frequent leakages from 2000 gallons of kerosene oil from 250 km plastic pipeline laid by India throughout the glacier have caused profound environmental loss the this great glacial resource.
Experts believe that such massive human interference and military encroachment has caused 10 kilometres contraction of the glaciers in the last 35 years.
“More than half of the glacier decrease comes from the military presence”, says Faisal Nadeem Gorchani, an environmental expert working with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan.
Studies conducted on different Indian glacier systems over the past two decades indicate an average annual retreat rate of between 2.6 metres and 40.5 metres.
A UNDP study states that most of these glaciers are retreating and their overall dimensions are diminishing.
However, some other recent scientific studies present conflicting observations about the decrease of Himlyena glaciers.
A NASA report states that more than 65 percent of glaciers in the Karakoram are growing. Another recent study published in the April 2012 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, suggests that the Karakoram mountain range, which homes about half of the volume of the Himalayan glaciers, is holding steady and growing in size.
Irrespective of such contrasting sceinftic calculations, Himalayan glaciers play a play an important role in the formation global environmental patterns. The Himalayan region is home to over 7,000 glaciers covering an area of 8,500 km. They play a crucial role in shaping and influencing the environmental conditions in the region.
Fighting war at the most highest battleground is not an easy task for both parties. India and Pakistan continue to pay human and financial price for waging a futile war on Himalayas.
So far no official data has been issued by both armies about the number of people killed or affected on this most challenging battlefield but some unofficial estimates claim that over 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been died between April 1984 and April 2012.
Because of severe weather conditions more soldiers have died in the Siachen from the weather than combat on the glaciers where winter temperatures plummet to minus 70 degrees Celsius with blizzards gusting at speeds of 160 kilometers per hour.
Estimates say that Pakistan is spending around $1 million daily while India’s daily expenditure to keep its hold over the glacier is double than Pakistan. Defense analysts believe that withdrawal of armies from the Siachen can save over $10 billion for both sides. This is a irrecoverable loss for a country like Pakistani which has already lost around $3.57 billion over the past 18 years because of flood devastation, change in rain and cropping patterns, increase in temperature, agricultural losses coupled with deforestation, low water quality and other climate change related disasters and changes.
In such background, resolving one of the major environmental and military disputes of the present world is paramount need of the day which demands sincerity of political leadership and a coordinated awareness campaign to give knowledge to public about the human, economic and environmental costs of the conflict.
“There is an urgent need to educate people in both countries about the futility of this standoff and to put pressure on the politicians to demilitarize Siachen,” opined Gupta. “Time has come to convince the ‘leaders’ on both sides of the border that it’s not politically bad to do so.”
About the author: Zafar Iqbal
Zafar Iqbal is a freelance journalist and Executive Director of Press for Peace (PFP).
He also blogs at http://www.zafaronline.net
He can be reached at [email protected]