Destroying the Glacier to Save it

The Siachen glacier, at 19,000 feet in elevation, has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan and is the world’s highest battlefield, with intermittent exchanges of fire. However, there may not be much left to fight over as the ice mass is disappearing due to global warming caused by emissions by industry and transport sectors.

Recent studies have found that the length of the glacier has dwindled to half from 150 km to 74 km. Dr Rajeev Upadhayay, of the geology department at Nainital’s Kumaun University (in Uttaranchal state) has studied the glacier since 1995 and delineated causes behind its reduction by 76 km.

In a recent study for a science magazine, Upadhayay wrote that lateral moraines — debris on the sides of the glacier up to 600 meters high – have appeared where thick ice sheets were earlier. He wrote that he is concerned over the existence of the river of ice if temperatures continue to rise and if snowfall continues to drop. The decline, he added, is marked in the core Siachen glacier and not in the related tongues and tributaries in Pakistan. His studies have extended to the Nubra-Shyok river valleys and the adjoining Karakoram Mountains.

The melting of the glaciers is causing concern over floods and landslides. The Himalayan regions in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal state and Ladakh contain more than 6,500 glaciers, the source of many rivers in the region. In the case of Siachen millions of lives of Pakistanis can be affected. There are also fears of a severe water crisis.

Siachen and a tributary glacier, Rimo, are points of origin of the Nubra and Shyok rivers, which source the Indus River in Pakistan which supplies bulk of the country's irrigation water. Siachen and other Himalayan glaciers have contributed significantly to sea level rises in the last 20 years, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service in 2005. In June 2005, the rising waters of Tibet’s Parchu Lake alarmed Indian authorities due to fears of large-scale flooding of the lower reaches of the Himalayas.

Some authorities have said that the recession of the Siachen glacier has accelerated since the mid-1980s when thousands of Pakistani and Indian soldiers were deployed. In 1947, when the Line of Control was formulated between India and Pakistan, the Siachen terrain was considered too rough and difficult to justify extending the border. Until 1984, neither India nor Pakistan troops positioned at Siachen, as neither side saw any point.

However, as relations between the two countries worsened, Siachen rose in strategic importance. India first occupied the upper reaches of the glacier in 1984 with what was called Operation Meghdoot and the fighting was on. In 1999, in what was called the Kargil War, Pakistan took the high ground and rained fire down on the Indians before they were driven off. The two countries agreed to a ceasefire in 2003 but troops continue to be stationed there under some of the world’s harshest conditions.

Indian soldiers defend the glacier at an estimated cost of up to US$1 million a day.

Thousands on both sides have died not from gunfire but because of the severe weather conditions and frostbite.

However, there may not be much left to fight for if matters continue in the same steam. Some observers say the establishment of permanent cantonments on either side of the Saltoro ridge, daily heavy air traffic to advance camps (up to Indra Col post) has caused damage.

Wars are hell on the environment. Military routines that are damaging the glacier include cutting and melting of glacial ice via chemicals; the daily dumping of more than a tonne of chemicals, metals, organic and human waste; daily leakage from 2,000 gallons of kerosene oil from 250 km of plastic pipeline laid by India that traverse the glacier.

Other observers say the military impact is minimal and the main cause is greenhouse gases, chiefly CO2, that is resulting in the worldwide temperature rise.

"The military presence has been there for two and a half decades. Artillery shelling has certainly had some effect, but I have not seen any physical evidence in my visits of such swift damage," Upadhyay was quoted as saying in Hindustan Times.

Whatever the causes, the increase in temperatures due to global warming in the Siachen region has been confirmed by more studies including Pakistan's Ministry of Water and Power. According to a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature, much harm has been caused to the glacier. The report warned that "Siachen is weeping, tomorrow the world will cry".

A report of the Expert Committee on Glaciers by India in 2006 strongly recommended restriction of tourist and mountaineering activities after observing the melting of the Gangotri and other Himalayan glaciers.

The report urged that Siachen and other Himalayan glaciers be declared as world heritage sites and handed over to UNEP/UNESCO for their preservation to prevent natural calamities.

Priyanka Bhardwaj is a journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at priyanka2508@yahoo.co.in