Exchange Siachen Confrontation for Peace

It is for opinion-makers in India and Pakistan to tell their respective governments to stop ruining the future of our water supplies and our weather system.

Back in 2003, one of us (Daudpota) signed an e-mail petition titled the "Siachen Peace Park Initiative," named after the mountainous glacier. It had to do with getting India and Pakistan to withdraw from the futile conflict in the mountains and to let nature revert to its snowy tranquillity. "As part of the normalization process/confidence-building measures, the governments of India and Pakistan are urged to establish a Siachen Peace Park to protect and restore the spectacular landscapes which are home to so many endangered species including the snow leopard." This was the statement adopted as a lead-up to the 5th World Parks Congress held in September 2003 in Durban, South Africa.

The petition was a follow-up to win widespread support for the idea from citizens of India, Pakistan, and around the world, so that the Indian and Pakistani governments could move forward without loss of face, or strategic liability. Sadly there has been no progress in resolving this decades-old dispute.

But new strongly worded reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Feb. 2 this year could perhaps make the decision-makers change their minds about this wasteful, futile conflict. The IPCC forecasts that global temperatures would rise by 1.8 degrees Celsius to 4 degrees Celsius this century. There are already signs that South Asia will be one of the worst affected regions — the monsoon could be affected with reduced agriculture production, the sinking of island communities is likely, and vector-borne diseases could increase.

Here, however, we will mainly consider the impact of human presence and war on the glaciers of this region and the impact of this on the region and globally. Note that melting of the Himalayan glaciers contributes about 25 percent to the sea-rise globally.

Serious Consequence

A serious unforeseen consequence of the Siachen war is the danger posed to four other glaciers: Gangotri, Miyar, Milan, and Janapa, which feed the Ganga (the first two glaciers), Chenab, and Sutlej rivers, respectively. This is because of the heavy traffic on the Indian road from the plains to Siachen passing near these glaciers on the Delhi-Manali-Leh route. This finding is corroborated by a recent report by one of us (Abbasi) for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), available at http://www.panda.org/.

According to M.N. Kaul, principal investigator on glaciology in the Indian Department of Science and Technology, "the ecology, the environment, and the health of the glacier can be under severe threat in case the Baltal route to the holy Amarnath cave was frequented by thousands of pilgrims." Professor Kaul said heavy pilgrim traffic besides mountain expeditions resulted in depletion of glacier and environmental degradation. He explained that "this depletion and degradation are the result of human breath, refuse and land erosion." When pilgrims can cause so much damage to the glaciers, imagine what the continual presence of troops from both countries must do to the ice and snow given their high-energy requirement.

Science bureaucrats who wish to be totally "objective" can often be very conservative in their assessment of complex phenomena that require immediate attention and action. Often a watertight assessment is not feasible and decisions ought to be based on the "precaution principle."

Unlike Professor Kaul, Rajendra Pachauri, director-general of the Energy and Resources Institute, is quoted as saying: "A number of scientists say Siachen should be made a protected area, a heritage site of sorts, and that there should be no army presence on either side. For purely ecological reasons, this might be a good idea. But I don't see why there would be melting as a result of military presence and activity."

But Professor Pachauri holds an even more important position as chairman of the IPCC. Launching the finding of the international report on Feb. 2, he strongly emphasized the danger if no action was taken on reducing greenhouse emissions, which, among other things, melt glaciers. Research about the Gangotri, India's largest glacier — which feeds the Ganga — has found that the rate of retreat has almost doubled to 112 feet (34 meters) a year compared to what it was in 1971. The melting of Himalayan glaciers could have serious consequences as more than 500 million residents of the Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra river basins rely on them for water supply.

As with Gangotri, so it is with Siachen where the increasing melting can be largely attributed to human activities in these areas. In Siachen, which provides water to the Nubra river, a tributary of the Indus, the ecosystem has been hugely disturbed by the presence of nearly 15,000 troops on its two sides, consuming and defecating, soiling the area and littering it with the remains of war. Much of this debris will flow into the Indus as the glacier melts.

India airlifts food and vital supplies to supplement material that goes up on an all-weather road. Fuel needed for cooking and keeping warm is provided by India through a 155-mile (250-km) long pipeline. Vehicular traffic and the heat generated from the activities on this 21,000-foot high glacier has led to unprecedented melting. Currently temperature rise in the area is recorded as 0.2 degrees Celsius annually, resulting in destructive snow avalanches, formation of glacial lakes, and snow holes.

Note that Pakistani troops lie on the western side of the Saltoro ridge, which essentially runs north-south, while Indians are on the eastern side. This is where the Siachen glacier is. Due to much lower activity on the Pakistani side the western glaciers are stable, as shown by recent independent studies by researchers from the U.K. and Italy.

Unfortunately, climate "experts" in Pakistan seem to lack knowledge of the importance of glaciers for our ecosystem. In 2001, some of them associated with the Global Climate Change Impact Studies Center in Islamabad suggested that glaciers be melted artificially (by lasers or darkening) to alleviate the drought in the plains! This Center was set up by old hands of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. It took one of their own colleagues, Khalid Rashid, to debunk in a conference paper their suggestions, which he label science fiction.

Glaciers can also be made secure by the use of common sense. It is for opinion-makers in India and Pakistan to tell their respective governments to stop ruining the future of our water supplies and our weather system. Bringing their troops down from the inhospitable heights of Siachen would be the first step. This would be welcomed by the troops as well as the mountain wildlife that has been displaced by the war.

The writers are Islamabad-based environmentalists.