Siachen: Can This Ice Melt?


After Siachen Glacier devoured more than 130 men in a single avalanche early this month, Islamabad is again seeking a way out of the inhuman, refrigerated battleground it has shared with India for the last 28 years. In the apparent spring of relations, if the two countries warm up to undo their glaciated positions, there is a possibility of other issues being pursued, analyses R S Gull.

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Siachen Glacier in snow storm

Snowstorms are common over the Siachen glacier on either side of the invisible divide. But it was for the first time in last three decades that such a large number of soldiers vanished over the inhuman heights. On April 7, 2012, an avalanche swept away 124 soldiers from Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry and 11 civilians. Despite Islamabad’s all out efforts such a large number of men and machinery could not be traced.

The tragedy, however, triggered a peace talk. It was initiated, unusually, by Rawalpandi and followed by Islamabad. Indications suggest that India and Pakistan are heading towards reviving negotiations on Siachen by picking up the threads from earlier failed sessions. Ahead of meeting, both the sides have made their positions clear, once again. Pakistan wants status quo ante (the troops moving to the pre-1984 position) and India seeks authentication and delineation of the respective positions all along the 110 kms long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) before considering demilitarization.

“The withdrawal of Pakistani troops is possible provided India also agrees,” Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari told a gathering after his India visit. “It will not be a unilateral decision.” However, the real risk associated with the talks between India and Pakistan seems to be their perpetual agreement to disagree. Siachen glacier located in Ladakh is one of the best examples that explains the crisis.

The Siachen crisis that many refer to as the refrigerator of Kashmir issue, owes its genesis to the UN assisted Karachi Agreement, which the two countries signed in July 1949. The agreement demarcated the cease-fire line in the J&K but stopped at a point NJ 9842. In fact, the line that later became the LoC was not delineated beyond this point as the two armies restored status quo ante after the 1971 war. Had they tried to do it they might have failed because of the series of glaciers in the Saltoro range.

The Saltoro range, of which Siachen is a part, has a series of challenging icy peaks. The heights got the attention of the mountaineers from across the world. While New Delhi was lackadaisical in permitting the foreign mountaineers, Islamabad readily permitted it. Since the entire set of peaks – Sia Kangri, Teram Kangri, Saltoro Kangri, the Rimo Group and Mamostong Kangri – are better accessible from West (Pakistan) instead of East (India), it led to misconception that Siachen belongs to Pakistan. Even maps suggesting this were available in the market. India termed it “cartographic aggression” saying Islamabad had unilaterally extended the LoC from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass thus slicing over 10,000 Sq Kms from Indian territory.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered army to launch Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984 in violation of the Shimla Agreement. Initially company strength of 4-Kumaon regiment was sent uphill to the Bilafond pass and the Sia Pass. Delhi stated that the move was aimed at preempting a Pakistan initiative in the region. Pakistan retaliated and within a couple of years the entire 110 -KM stretch from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass became a battleground. Now, recent media reports suggest India has deployed 15000 soldiers manning more than 120 posts over seven peaks as Pakistani soldiers are holding around 35 posts over five peaks that are in its controls.

In this standoff, thousands of families on either side of the Radcliffe divide, whose members are deployed on the inhuman battlefield will have to wait.

Though a ceasefire holds since November 2003, body-bags continue to fly down the peaks as weather continues to be the principal predator. This is the soldier’s ultimate nightmare in which he breathes purest but scarce oxygen, sleeps in ice-caves, and endures blizzards and storms with thunderous velocity of 150 kmph that sometimes continue for weeks together. The Glacier gets 35 ft of snow every season as temperatures plumes to 60 degrees Celsius below freezing. Kerosene oil warms him only to make him spit soot for years together.

On this battleground nature has camouflaged traps under the snow, says one soldier who had his three-month stint at the glacier during the height of tension, one has to be lucky to survive. It could be an avalanche, a blizzard or a crevasse. The cold is the biggest enemy, he says. Touch a rifle barehanded and one gets frostbite. Physiological threats include high altitude pulmonary oedema (water-logging in lungs), high-altitude cerebral oedema (leaking of fluids from oxygen starved blood vessels in the brain), increase in RBC count causing thickness of blood and a host of other disorders including amnesia. Apart from reporting over 15 kilograms of weight loss in 90-days, soldiers after returning to bases often suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss because of prolonged use of oxygen masks.

Kevin Fedarko, the American journalist who spent two months with soldiers manning the glacier on either side in 2004 summer reported: “Soldiers talk of men losing their minds and leaping from the posts to their death. Some say their tormented cries can be heard in the wind over the peaks”.

Over two decades of ‘refrigerated combat’ has helped rivals to learn the lessons of survival in the most brutal environment. There are fiberglass igloos fitted with solar panels. Bio-digesters, drum-sized latrines carrying bacteria that eat the human wastes (its efficacy is yet to be determined independently) which are dumped into crevasses once filled, and the state of the art gadgetry that money can buy. Snow scooters were inducted during NDA regime at select posts. A kerosene oil pipeline connecting different posts at a particular camp is also in place. A sky-lift and a pulley system is reportedly in progress to ferry soldiers, take supplies and evacuate the human waste and make the operation less exorbitant.

Over the years, the concern over the crisis is transcending the national borders of the two countries. The world is talking about the ecological costs that the standoff has for the world at large.

The World Widelife Fund (WWF) in 2007 listed Indus as one of world’s ten most threatened rivers.  Around 2900 kms long river with around 1.10 million sq kms of basin hosting 178 million people irrigates 80 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural land. Its report said the Indus is “extremely sensitive to climate change” as glaciers feed its 80 percent discharge. More water in dry, warm years and less water in cool years” could hit the livelihood and threaten the food security of a host of population severely.

Himalayan glaciers – of which Siachen is a major one – have reduced their volume by 35 percent in last twenty years and are retreating at the rate of 110 meter per year. World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in 2005 said Siachen and other Himalayan glaciers contributed 24 percent to sea level rise in last 20 years. Unlike other glaciers that might be impacted by the climate change, massive human activity on either side of the Saltoro ridge is termed to be the main factor for its increased meltdown.

Arshid H Abbasi, the WWF consultant, whose December 2006 report Revenge of The Wild Roses (apparently plagiarizing it from Nicole Galland’s novel ‘Revenge of the Rose’), triggered massive cries of concern the world over, attributed the meltdown to the host of human activity: permanent cantonments on either side, daily heavy air traffic to advance camps up to Thoise and then to Sonam and then to Indra Col post, 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 leakages from 2000 gallons of kerosene oil from 250 Km plastic pipeline laid by India throughout the glacier. “Today Siachen is weeping, tomorrow the world will cry”, was his famous quote that hogged the headlines world over.

“Unprecedented increase in the flow of the Nubra River, emerging from the Siachen glacier further supports the melting process. The melt rate is increasing and the yearly swelling of this river is now destroying carefully constructed bridges and infrastructure along its course”, Abbasi observed. “Surely clear evidence of human influenced warming the world’s largest glacier, which will have serious long-term repercussion on the water resources with climatic changes at regional and global level,” he added.

An earlier study by Pakistan American environmentalist Prof Saleem Ali said the Siachin stand-off is a “classic psychological-trap” that functions like a wolf trap – a wolf cutting his tongue while eating the bait in the trap and tasting his own blood and goes on licking the knife’s blade, eventually bleeding to death. Though the Indian army launched a symbolic clean-up operation last year, Ali says the huge garbage would need a host of investment and might require donations from the UN.

Fedarko wrote in Outside that top army officers at Leh suggested that they were airdropping about 13,000 tons of supplies onto the glacier each year to sustain the troops. “Out of this, nearly 2200 tons are left as waste: 1400 tons of packing materials, 330 tons of empty ammunition cases, 7.6 tons of canned food, and 55 tons of miscellaneous items, including dead batteries, discarded clothing, and used signal cables. On top of all that come the periodic kerosene spills, which can disgorge up to 1850 gallons in a day if undetected, and 372 tons a year of human feaces,” he reported. That makes, adds Fedarko, at least 41000 tons of trash on the glacier excluding “the 43000 artillery shells that India says are fired over the Saltoro Ridge onto the Siachen by the Pakistanis every year”.

Canon India Inc that was part of the ‘Save the Siachen Glacier’ campaign in 2004 estimated 216000 tonnes of load stands flown to the Glacier since 1984. “About 12000 tonnes of load is flown into Glacier every year, over 50 per cent of which has been dumped there as hazardous waste. Experts claim that 40 per cent of this waste is plastic and metal pollution,” its website reported. This situation has immensely strained the glacier that is shrinking by 310 feet and moving downstream by 200 feet a year. Once the wastes starts meltdown, it is likely to affect over thirty crore (300 million) people who depend on Indus river. The glacier is drained by Nubra river that joins Shyok, a tributary of the Indus River, at Khalsar.

The strategic significance of the glacier is highly questionable. American south Asia expert Stephen P Cohen, once termed the stand-off as “a struggle of two bald men over a comb”. Those supporting the continuation of the crisis discover interesting factors. The two countries had a series of negotiations but they failed to manage a turnaround on certain technicalities even though they had agreed to re-deploy the forces under the spirit of Shimla agreement.

There was some forward movement on the issue in 1990 and 1992 during which the two sides exchanged non-papers as well. But nothing much happened. India is insisting that the line needs to be demarcated beyond the point it was left without delineation. Pakistan is not interested and asserts the two armies should go back to the pre-1984 position. New Delhi is asking Islamabad to agree to a demarcation of the existing position on ground over the glacier but Pakistan is willing to acknowledge these positions and not on a map. Islamabad has been suggesting that the two countries should follow the sino-Indian model of managing their inhospitable borders. They have a fixed schedule in which one army patrols the borders in a particular period and then goes back to its base. Then the other army patrols the same area. While both the sides patrol, the borders continue to be disputed. But this model is not acceptable to New Delhi.

The stand-off is draining both the countries. Unlike Pakistan that drives the supplies to the Gyri base camp and then uses mules, India solely depends on the choppers. Flying in trying environment is a costly business. A recent report in the Hindustan Times suggested India spends about Rs 6 to Rs 7 crore a day. India and Pakistan are estimated to have spent around Rs 70,000 crore since they took positions over the heights. This is in addition to more than 3500 body bags that flew down the peaks since 1984.

Over the years, the concerned have evolved a couple of models. World Conservation Union (WCU), the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Himalayan Environmental Trust (HET) and the Himalayan Club want the glacier to be a trans-frontier peace park – the Siachen Peace Park (SSP). They see SSP as the only means of preserving the “catastrophically polluted” high mountain ecosystem. Environmentalists Aamir Ali, Harish Kapadia (whose son died fighting militants in Kupwara) and Mandip Soin and noted US minister Karl F Inderfurth have supported the idea.

They see it as a related preserve to the existing Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP) sprawling over an area of 973,845 hectares immediately west of the Siachen Glacier including K2, the 2nd highest peak in the world. Campaigners for SSP want, redeployment, and introduction of technical means of monitoring and surveillance prior to complete demilitarization.

Over the years, hostile neighbours have converted straddling boundaries into protected areas. It was over 70 years ago when USA and Canada established the first Peace Park the Waterton glacier international park. Since then the numbers of peace parks in the world have gone up to 169 involving well over 100 countries. But, the first officially designated `trans-frontier’ park was set up between South Africa and Botswana, around a decade back. Inderfurth had suggested that the SSP would be “jointly maintained by both nations without reference to territorial boundaries”.

Another option is the Siachen Science Club, evolved by various specialists of the Cooperative Monitoring Centre, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, USA in 1998. It substitutes a scientific presence on the glacier for the military one that would satisfy the requirement for a national presence while advancing the cause of science in many fields. Supporters of the idea have identified scores of subjects that would get benefited if SSC envisaging scientific research facility comes into being. The centre would be staffed by scientists, engineers, and technicians conducting research, along with necessary support staff on the lines of scientific stations and outposts in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The campaign once led the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to fly to the Siachen base camp in June 2005 and talk to the soldiers. “Time has come to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain,” Dr Singh said. “It must become an example of peace wherein nobody feels any threat and there is no scope for conflict”.

Seven years elapsed. Somehow the two countries are unable to make peace either with the glaciated mountains or with themselves.


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