x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

War zone's melting glacier a 'colossal' risk

The planet's second longest glacier, which is on the disputed Indian and Pakistani border, is retreating at an alarming 110 metres a year.

Indian army soldiers climb an ice wall near the Siachen Glacier in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalaya Mountains.
Indian army soldiers climb an ice wall near the Siachen Glacier in the eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalaya Mountains.

ISLAMABAD // India and Pakistan's 24-year battle for the Siachen Glacier along the disputed border above Kashmir costs more than US$2 billion (Dh7.4bn) annually, is accelerating glacial melting and is putting millions of South Asians at risk of catastrophic floods, drought and food shortages, glacial experts and environmentalists warn. Siachen, the planet's second longest glacier outside the polar regions, is retreating at an alarming 110 metres a year. It is named after the wild roses that grow in valleys below, but these days is better known as the world's highest - and most senseless - battleground. It is fast winning the title of the world's filthiest glacier. At 70km long, more than two kilometres wide and 5,753 metres high at its source, it is the largest of the 15,000 glaciers that snake through the Himalayan-Karakoram region, Earth's "third pole". It is so remote that most of the peaks surrounding it are unnamed, and even fewer have been climbed. "We must immediately demilitarise Siachen and seek to regain lost ice mass by using glacial growing techniques," said Arshad H Abbasi, a hydrologist who has conducted studies on Siachen for the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Pakistan's meteorological department. "Troops have died up there, the vast majority from harsh conditions, but the conflict is having a greater effect on the health of the Siachen and other Himalayan glaciers. We have lost a substantial amount of glacial mass as a result of huge infrastructure development by both armies on either side of the ridge. "This has led not only to the creation of glacial lakes and snow hole formations, it's responsible for destructive snow avalanches on both sides of the Saltoro ridge." Glacial lakes lead to increased flooding. Mr Abbasi compared satellite images of the glacier's snout between 1978 and 2006 as part of a study for the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Pakistan last year. He found the rate of retreat far more dramatic than the annual 30m to 34m previously reported. "The images suggest the glacier has been retreating at around 110 metres a year over the period studied. This is all due to human activity," he said in an interview. Among human activities that have caused the retreat, Mr Abbasi cited troop deployments, daily military flights to the world's highest helipad, kerosene and diesel fumes, lorry movements and the dumping of chemical and human waste. Mr Abbasi's 2007 study found that Siachen had lost 35 per cent of its volume over the previous 20 years. Siachen lies in the glacial no-man's-land above the Line of Control dividing the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. With little strategic value, it was never demarcated when the subcontinent was divided in 1947, nor when the Line of Control was established in 1972 up to the geographic survey point NJ 9842. Beyond that point the demarcation is defined as "from there on north to the glaciers". In April 1984, India pitched a battalion on the Saltoro ridge lining the glacier's western flank. Pakistan followed suit, the two sides staged a series of kamikaze, oxygen-deprived battles on its icy heights, lost more men because of frostbite and avalanche than bullets, and settled on a ceasefire in 2003 with neither side having gained any strategic advantage. But the troops are still up there in a demarcation stalemate, in temperatures that can fall to -50°C, eyeballing each other from freezing passes on the roof of the world. Exact troop numbers are defence secrets, but estimates range from 6,000 to 25,000. Both sides have built roads to transport men and supplies to their high-altitude bases. Pakistan can deal with remote passes using mules, but Indian troops face tougher access and must use helicopters or snowmobiles. Environmental damage is caused by human waste and consumption of fuels at military posts on the Siachen heights, as well as by the heavy military lorries wheezing up the mountainside and helicopters landing regularly on the snowy ridges. Troops frequently dig up the ice to build bunkers and igloos, Mr Abbasi said. India has said it is prepared to pull troops back as long as the current front line is accepted as a Line of Control. Pakistan refuses to have the front lines demarcated, and believes it has de facto sovereignty over the glacier because of past expeditions' practice of obtaining permits from Pakistani authorities. While both sides have discussed demilitarising the glacier in countless rounds of peace talks since 2003, they have failed to reach an agreement. Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, listed Siachen's demilitarisation as a key goal of the seven-month-old government. The Siachen's melted waters feed the Nubra River, which drains into the Shyok River, a key tributary of the Indus River, which waters Pakistan all the way to the Arabian Sea. "Due to military exercises and battles, toxic wastes are buried in the ice and these find their way into the Indus water basin and affect the lifeline of Pakistan," said a specialist in glaciers, Khalid Rashid, who taught maths and physics at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "The whole area is being polluted with toxic waste and it will pollute your children and your grandchildren. If we do not want to leave behind the harmful effects of human activity, we must withdraw troops now." The Karakoram-Himalayan glaciers provide headwaters for Asia's nine largest rivers, including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers. "The Himalayan glaciers are the climate regulators and source of all rivers of the eastern hemisphere that feed half of humanity," said Khalid Mustafa, an environmental lobbyist and writer. "Siachen is the water tank which ensures the prosperity of the people of the two warring countries. It is now the dirtiest glacier." "Deployment of troops on Siachen is a huge burden on the economy of both countries. The result after 24 years is nothing but increasing poverty on both sides," said Abid Suleri, director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a think tank in Pakistan. "If Siachen and other glaciers are not preserved, the impacts on human health, water resources, and food production will be colossal," he said, predicting increased deaths, disease and injury because of greater flooding and avalanches, higher sea levels and increased salinity of groundwater along the coast. Crop yields could be reduced by up to 20 per cent in east and South-east Asia and up to 30 per cent in South and Central Asia by 2050, Mr Suleri said. bcurran@thenational.ae