Battle fatigue

The environmental implications of the border-war in Siachen

By K C Cariappa
Published: Saturday 30 November 2002

-- Until 1984, the Siachen glacier region was tacitly accepted as 'no man's land'. In fact, there was an implicit understanding between India and Pakistan that the region is so remote and inhospitable that it could not possibly be considered a 'bone of contention' between the two countries. Since then, much has changed. This region is today the 'highest battleground in the world'.

It is also the longest non-polar glacier in the world. Temperatures plummet to a mind and body freezing minus 40 degrees Centigrade; fierce winds blowing at speeds in excess of 150 km per hour penetrate even the most modern protective clothing, and the deprivation factors can be morale shattering. On the Indian side at any rate, it is reported that 80 per cent of the casualties are weather and avalanche/crevasse related.

There is another casualty, one with far greater ramifications on human existence, that has been given the complete go-by: damage caused to, and sustained by the environment. Convoys of trucks wend their way to 'air-heads' from where helicopters carry the supplies forward. It is not difficult to imagine what tons of noxious emissions could do to pristine environs. Added to this is the pollution caused by spent artillery shell casings, empty fuel containers, discarded tetra-packs and aluminium packing, and the huge quantity of human waste that is packed into metal drums and then dropped into deep crevasses.

At a time when an estimated 15,000 glaciers in the region are recognised as fragile, this is worrying. These form the reservoir for such mighty rivers as the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Indus -- lifeline to millions across the sub-continent. The glaciers and melting snows contribute approximately 70 per cent of the water that feeds the rivers. Will these rivers eventually dry up and become seasonal flows?

The late General Joshi spoke of the army's role in "safeguarding the ecological frontiers of the country". Heartening words, those. The primary question in this context is whether India and Pakistan want to end this surreal stand-off at all. So far, every meeting, at every level, has been inconclusive.
Siachen peace park A possible solution is establishment of a 'trans-frontier peace park' in the Siachen area. First and foremost, this would preserve for posterity the world's most spectacular mountain region. It would also enable both countries to demilitarise and withdraw their forces without losing face. There are 169 such 'peace parks' in 113 countries. Some of these were conceived specifically with the intention of providing a peaceful solution to conflict zones. An example is the La Amistad Peace Park between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Siachen science centre In 1998, Kent Biringer of the Cooperative Monitoring Centre, Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, usa, proposed that the Siachen area be demilitarised and converted into a vast scientific laboratory that he called 'Siachen Science Centre'. After demilitarisation this would "satisfy the requirement for a national presence". He cites the field research station in Antarctica as a template. There are a number of protocols in the Antarctic Treaty that could be made applicable to Siachen. Some possible modified protocols by way of example:

Siachen shall be used for peaceful purposes only.

Freedom of scientific research as applicable during the Year of the Mountains (2002) shall continue, subject to treaty provisions.

Contracting parties shall exchange information to promote maximum economy and efficiency of operations.

The disengagement of forces will be carried out to distances away from the core area in a manner that neither side has an advantage over the other.

Cooperative aerial monitoring will be conducted to ensure that neither country has an advantage over the other.

Conflict between India and Pakistan, the degradation of the environment in the sub-continent and global warming all point to an apocalyptic future for South Asia. To make matters worse, the Western Ghats are also falling prey to unrestricted and illegal mining, quarrying and timber felling. This mountain range is the portal to the southwest monsoon, on which the entire sub-continent is dependant. This two-pronged assault, on the Himalayas and the west coast spells disaster. But India will not suffer the consequences alone. Pakistan will go the same way if the Siachen glacier does dry up, as will our other immediate neighbours.

K C Cariappa retired from the Indian Air Force as air officer commanding-in-chief in the south-western air command

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.