New strongly worded reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Feb 2 this year could perhaps make the decision-makers change their minds about this wasteful, futile conflict. The IPCC forecasts that global temperatures would rise by 1.8 to 4.0 Celsius this century. There are already signs that South Asia will be one of the worst affected regions — monsoon affected with reduced agriculture production, sinking of island communities and increase in vector borne diseases.
Here, however, we will mainly consider the impact of human presence and war on the glaciers of this region and the impact of this on the region and globally. Note that melting of the Himalayan glaciers contributes about 25 percent to the sea-rise globally.
A serious unforeseen consequence of the Siachen war is the danger posed to four other glaciers: Gangotri, Miyar, Milan and Janapa, which feed the rivers Ganges (first two glaciers), Chenab and Sutlej respectively. This is because of the heavy traffic on the Indian road from the plains to Siachen passing near these four glaciers on the Delhi-Manali-Leh route. This finding is corroborated by a recent report by one of us (AHA) for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
According to Prof M N Kaul, Principal Investigator on glaciology in the Indian Department of Science and Technology, “the ecology, the environment and the carservice2u health of the glacier can be under severe threat in case the Baltal route to the holy Amarnath cave was frequented by thousands of pilgrims.”
Mr Kaul said that heavy pilgrim traffic besides mountain expeditions result in depletion of glacier and environmental degradation. He explained that “this depletion and degradation are the result of human breath, refuse and land erosion.”
When these pilgrims can cause so much damage to the glaciers, imagine what the continual presence of troops from both countries must do to the ice and snow given their high-energy requirement.
Science bureaucrats who wish to be totally ‘objective’ can often be very conservative in their assessment of complex phenomenon that require immediate attention and action. Often a watertight assessment is not feasible and decision ought to be based on the “precaution principle”.
Unlike Prof Kaul, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute, is quoted as saying: “A number of scientists say Siachen should be made a protected area, a heritage site of sorts, and that there should be no army presence on either side. For purely ecological reasons, this might be a good idea. But I don’t see why there would be melting as a result of military presence and activity.” Italics are added to show a lack of conviction in supporting an end to armed conflict at Siachen.
But Dr Pachauri holds an even more important position as the chairman of the IPCC. Launching the finding of the international report on Feb 2nd, he strongly emphasised the cost and danger if there is no action taken on reducing greenhouse emissions which, among other things, melt glaciers.
Research about the Gangotri, India’s largest glacier — which feeds the Ganges — has found that the rate of retreat has almost doubled to 34 meter per year compared to what it was in 1971.
The melting of Himalayan glaciers could have serious consequences as more than 500 million residents of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins rely on them for water supply.
As with Gangotri, so with Siachen the increasing melting can be largely attributed to human activities in these areas. In Siachen, which provides water to the Nubra River, a tributary of the Indus, the ecosystem has been hugely disturbed by the presence of nearly 15000 troops on its two sides, consuming and defecating, soiling the area and littering it with the remains of war. Much of this debris will flow into our river Indus as the glacier melts.
India airlifts food and vital supplies to supplement material that goes up on an all-weather road. Fuel needed for daily needs of cooking and keeping warm is provided by India through a 250 km long pipeline. Vehicular traffic and the heat generated from the activities on this 21,000 ft high glacier has led to unprecedented melting and diminishing of this 72 km-long glacier. Currently temperature rise in the area is recorded as 0.2 degrees Celsius annually, resulting in destructive snow avalanches, formation of glacial lakes and snow holes.
Note that Pakistani troops lie on the western side of the Saltoro ridge, which essentially runs north-south, while Indians are on the eastern side. This is where the Siachen glacier is. Due to much lower activity on the Pakistani side the western glaciers are stable, as shown by recent independent studies by researchers from the UK and Italy.
Unfortunately, climate ‘experts’ in Pakistan seem to lack knowledge of the importance of glaciers for our ecosystem. In 2001, some of them associated with the Global Climate Change Impact Studies Centre in Islamabad suggested that glaciers be melted artificially (by lasers or darkening) to alleviate the drought in the plains! This Centre was set up by old hands of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. It took one of their own colleagues, Dr Khalid Rashid, to debunk in a conference paper their suggestions, which he labelled as science fiction!
Glaciers can also be made secure by the use of common sense. It is for opinion-makers in India and Pakistan to tell their respective governments to stop ruining the future of our water supplies and our weather system. Bringing their troops down from the inhospitable heights of Siachen would be the first step. This would be welcomed by the troops as well as the mountain wildlife that has been displaced by the war.