x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In the Siachen Glacier standoff nature is both a killer and victim

Environmental experts say the heavy military presence is speeding up the melting of the glacier, one of the world's largest outside the polar regions.

Rescuers from the Pakistan army excavate victims of an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier, northern Pakistan.
Rescuers from the Pakistan army excavate victims of an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier, northern Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan and India's military standoff in the frozen mountains of Kashmir is not only costing soldiers' lives, experts say - it is also wreaking havoc on the environment.

A huge avalanche on Saturday devastated Pakistan's Gayani army camp on the fringes of the Siachen Glacier, where Pakistani and Indian soldiers brave bitter conditions to eyeball each other in a long-running territorial dispute.

Efforts to find the 138 Pakistani soldiers buried in the avalanche were delayed again yesterday because of bad weather. The harsh weather was expected to last at least another 24 hours, a meteorological official said.

Environmental experts say the heavy military presence is speeding up the melting of the glacier, one of the world's largest outside the polar regions, and leaching poisonous materials into the Indus river system. Faisal Nadeem Gorchani of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad said the glacier had shrunk by 10 kilometres in the last 35 years.

"More than half of the glacier reduction comes from the military presence," he said.

The Pakistani hydrologist and Siachen specialist Arshad Abbasi gave an even more alarming assessment of the glacier's decline, and said that non-militarised areas had not suffered so badly.

"More than 30 per cent of the glacier has melted since 1984, while most of the Karakoram glaciers on the Pakistani side expanded," he said.

Troop movements, training exercises and building infrastructure all accelerate melting, Mr Gorchani said.

Waste from the military camps is also a major problem, harming the environment and threatening to pollute the water systems that millions of people across the subcontinent depend upon.

"Indian army officials have described the Siachen as 'the world's biggest and highest rubbish dump'," said Neal Kemkar, a researcher in the United States, in an article for the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.

The report quoted estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature that on the Indian side alone, more than 900 kilograms of human waste was dropped into crevasses every day.

Mr Kemkar said 40 per cent of the military waste was plastics and metal, and as there are no natural biodegrading agents present, "metals and plastics simply merge with the glacier as permanent pollutants, leaching toxins like cobalt, cadmium, and chromium into the ice".

"This waste eventually reaches the Indus River, affecting drinking and irrigation water that millions of people downstream from the Siachen, both Indian and Pakistani, depend upon," the report said.

Kemkar also warned the conflict had affected wildlife, with the habitat of the endangered snow leopard, the brown bear and the ibex - a type of wild goat - all threatened.

There is almost no chance of any of the people buried by Saturday's avalanche being found alive, so they will likely be added to the list of those claimed by Siachen.

An estimated 8,000 troops have died in the glacier's freezing wastes since conflict over the area flared in 1984. The cost of the operation is kept under wraps but the Pakistani newspaper The News reported that Pakistan spends US$60 million (Dh220.2m) a year on Siachen and India more than $200 million.