The world’s highest battleground has a formidable foe – climate change. The Siachen Glacier, where the Indian and Pakistani forces have faced each other since 1984, is melting, and by the turn of the century, the loss could be a substantial 68 percent.
The battle for the forbidding heights and treacherous passes of the Siachen Glacier, the second longest in the non-polar regions, is often described as “Oro-politics,” where ‘oro’ means mountains. The Pakistan Army was planning to occupy the maddening heights when the Indian Army beat them to punch.
The guns have been silent on the Siachen Glacier, but the extreme heights, rarefied atmosphere, and treacherous terrain don’t make it a wee bit easier for the soldiers holding the posts.
The Siachen conflict between India and Pakistan is often referred to as the coldest war or the endless war atop the roof of the world. The high altitude and extreme climate create a hostile environment that has caused by far the most casualties and imposed tremendous costs on both sides.
The latest research paper published by Dr. Sardar Muhammad Rafique Khan, Deputy Director at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Government of Pakistan administered Kashmir (PAK), indicates that a “Glacial Crisis” is gripping both sides of the Line of Control and 25 percent of the Glaciers have vanished.
The paper indicates that the glaciers in the Neelum Valley on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control are “rapidly diminishing, hurtling towards complete disappearance within the next 50 years”.
The paper was presented for the 8th International Conference on Environment and Climate Change conducted by the Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change. The paper highlights an unsettling trend: the Himalayan glaciers are retreating at rates that vary from 159 to 309 hectares per year.
Khan clarified that taking into account the trend of glacier melting from 2000 to 2017, the covered area of the glaciers may have further decreased to 10,396-9,496 hectares, indicating an additional decrease of approximately 954 to 1,854 hectares and a total reduction of 5,000–6,000 hectares since 2000. However, since 2017, no systematic or scientific survey of study has been carried out.
The results are in sync with the study conducted by earth scientists and glaciology expert Shakeel Ahmad Romshoo on the Indian glaciers. Romshoo, currently the vice chancellor of the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, shows that in the last five to six decades, “we have lost about 25 percent of our glacier mass”.
Projections suggest a potential loss of 68 percent by the century’s end, even under moderate climate change. Romshoo emphasized the significance of the region’s 18,000 glaciers, such as the substantial Siachen glacier. The expert warned that the melting of glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh is going to impact the water availability in the Himalayan region with consequent adverse effects on the dependent livelihoods.
“We have about 18,000 glaciers; some of these glaciers are big, like the Siachen glacier, which in one dimension has a length of about 65 km. The huge glaciers we have, about 500 to 600 meters thick, are huge resources in J&K and Ladakh,” Romshoo has been quoted as saying. The climate change has resulted in the region getting less snowfall.
The Kashmir valley is having a snowless winter in 2024, severely impacting tourism and highlighting the El Nino effect. Snow and Glaciers are crucial water sources for the Indo-Gangetic plains. Decreased snowfall could impact springs and water availability in the region.
Military Occupation Of Siachen Glacier
The Indian side seized the Siachen Glacier in 1984 under Operation Meghdoot. Since then, it has been the Indian military’s longest continuous development.
Pakistan launched Operation Ababeel in response to Megdhoot to dislodge Indian troops from Bilafond La and Sia La. Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La are the only approaches through passes to the Siachen Glacier.
The intermittent conflict between the two bete noirs has earned Siachen the moniker of being “the highest battleground” in the world. The soldiers are fighting a war in extreme weather and heights as high as 24,000 feet.
But what started as a battle with crampons and climbing rope has turned into high-altitude trench warfare, with the two rival armies frozen – often literally – in pretty much the same positions as 40 years ago.
In 2012 there was a proposal to convert the Siachen Glacier into a peace park, but the Indian Army has paid a huge price to occupy the heights to let go of its military advantage.
In the region, Pakistan and China are divided by the Siachen glacier, which also divides central Asia from the Indian subcontinent. The Siachen glacier’s Saltoro Ridge acts as a barrier, preventing PoK from being directly connected to China and preventing them from establishing military ties there. Siachen also acts as a watchtower for India, allowing it to maintain close observation over Pakistan’s Gilgit and Baltistan territories.
Situated around 5,400 meters (17,700 feet) above sea level, Kashmir’s Siachen Glacier is a daunting location. Temperatures can plunge to -55 degrees Celsius (-67 degrees Fahrenheit), weeks-long blizzards are possible, and a person could completely vanish in crevasses. At lower altitudes, the glacier is an important water source, with the Nubra River emanating from it. Nubra flows into Pakistan and the Arabian Sea as a tributary of the Indus River.
Both sides have deployed 5,000 soldiers on each side to maintain the posts. The long military occupation has also impacted the environment.
Harish Kapadia, a mountaineer, writes in his book “Siachen Glacier – the Battle of Roses”: For the next two days, we walked along a black pipeline made of hard rubber which carried kerosene oil, a prime requirement on the glacier. With pumping stations at camps and half links, thousands of liters of K-oil are sent to higher camps, saving on porterage and helicopter fuel to transport it. In winter, the pipes are protected by snow, but in the summer heat, a pipe can sometimes burst, if the valves are not shut off at the two pumping stations in time, hundreds of liters of K’ oil will flow into the glacier’s crevasses, mingle with snow and water, and flow down to the Nubra.
The pollution caused by this, along with all the other solid garbage that rolls into the crevasses, damaged the glacier beyond redemption. But, when artillery shells fly, when the cold is intense, snow covers the glacier, and life is in danger, it is a matter of a soldier’s life versus the environment. As long as the fierce war on the glacier continues, no soldier is going to pick up even a pin to clean up.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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