Pakistan and India’s Siachen Glacier: No Man’s Land for Conservation and Peace

Posted in Asia | 20-Sep-06 | Author: Fiona Rotberg

Dr. Fiona J. Y. Rotberg is WSN Editor Environmental Security Issues.

Uppsala University, Sweden

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India should grasp the excitement, relief, and guarded optimism that was generated by their recent decision in Havana, Cuba to resume formal peace talks between the two nations.

In a statement, the two leaders said they had “decided to continue the search for mutually acceptable options for a peaceful negotiated settlement of all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. They also agreed to address and tackle cross boarder terrorism.

The proposed Siachen Glacier Peace Park in Pakistan and India is poised to be a positive topic to discuss when the peace talks resume. The establishment of a peace park could serve as an enormous trust building mechanism while also setting the stage to conserve biodiversity, and provide large populations (100 million inhabitants within both countries’ boarders) access to a natural resource. Water resources that flow from the Siachen Glacier serve over a million inhabitants in both Pakistan and India.

It was recently suggested to the author by a former Pakistani diplomat that if India is not careful, due to its large peasant populations, it could witness a home grown uprising that has been seen in other countries in the region. Lack of access to clean water could be a spark that helps ignite a larger backlash. Leaders of these two countries should consider the environmental security threat that the Siachen Glacier conflict poses to its populations and nations.

The Siachen Glacier is located on the border of both India and Pakistan. The two countries have been in conflict on and off for decades. They have fought three wars since 1947, mostly over the possession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The 70 km long Siachen Glacier is located at 5,400 meters above sea level and has been called the worlds highest battle field. It has been estimated that over 5,000 lives have been lost on the warring grounds of the glacier. The glacier is also the Himalayan watershed that separates Pakistan from China. Since 1984, both Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been engaged in a bloody war in altitudes of over 22,000 feet and minus 50° Celsius. More deaths have been attributed to the uninhabitable weather, rather than gun battle.

Habitats to Rebuild Trust

While young soldiers fight over territory and strategic importance, the biodiversity of the area suffers the consequences. Habitats and breading grounds of snow leopards, brown bears, and the ibex are under threat, as is some of the regions endemic flora. The establishment of a peace park would lead toward the regeneration of biodiversity and the building of much needed trust between India and Pakistan.

Ironically, the word Sia means rose, thus Siachen means the place of roses. Roses reportedly still bed the lower valleys. Today, the Siachen Glacier is a polluted waste ground. Thousands of soldiers have lived there for the last decades, leaving behind not only human waste, but fuel containers, packaging, medical waste, cans, drums, and guns, arms, ammunition and shells. Very little can biodegrade at such high altitudes. Hundreds of tons of this garbage and hardware are dumped into crevasses, which will eventually emerge in the water supply. The garbage and waste pollutes the Nubra River (which flows eastward into India), which in turn flows into the Shyok River, which then flows in to the Indus river. It is water from the Indus that millions of people depend upon daily.

Water Resource for Millions

To date, there has been little analysis of how the battle over the Siachen Glacier affects millions of inhabitants. It is known that large numbers depend on drinking water that flows from the glacier, but it has been only a mention rather than a focal point. If members of both governments focused more on the dreadful environmental impacts and the impact that the protracted conflict is having on its populations, it would become apparent that not only is the Siachen Glacier a security issue, but also an important environmental one as well.

When the author recently discussed the Siachen Glacier with several Pakistani retired military generals, they agreed that little attention over the years has been given to the effect the battle and its consequences has had on downstream water supplies. After all, the definition of a Transfrontier Conservation Area, or Peace Park, is a “protected area that spans across boundaries of multiple countries, where the political border sections that are enclosed within its area are abolished. This includes removal of all forms of physical boundaries, such as fences, allowing free migration of animals and human within the area.” The primary reasons that peace parks are established are to preserve animal migration patterns, and thus to ensure sufficient food and water sources for population growth.

Confidence Building Measure

The establishment of a Transboundary Peace Park would allow both Pakistani and Indian armies to withdraw without losing face; with their dignity and honor intact. A peace park could be the fruitful beginning of lasting peace over Kashmir; it would build confidence and goodwill, not only across the borders, but within the region as a whole. It would also only ensure the populations that the leaders also care about the water that so many depend upon.

The Waterton Glacier International Peace Park between Canada and the United States was established in 1932, thus a peace park is not a novel idea. Since the Waterton Peace Park, the world has witnessed the establishment of 169 peace parks that involved over 100 countries. Examples that India and Pakistan can draw on include the Cordillera del Condor Peace Transborder Reserve between Peru and Ecuador; La Amistad National Park between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and the Prespa Park between Albania, Greece and Macedonia.

The IUCN advocates for the creation of parks for peace saying that “protected areas along national frontiers can not only conserve biodiversity but can also be powerful symbols and agents of cooperation, especially in areas of territorial conflict.”

President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will hopefully take heed to General V.R. Raghavan’s, (the Commanding Indian General in the Siachen) suggestions that he put for in much more detail in a book entitled Siachen: Conflict Without End. Three steps he suggests to end the Siachen conflict include:

  1. End the fighting without disengaging or redeployment. Let Siachen recede from the public mind; this phase might last for 2-3 years.
  2. Introduce technical means of monitoring and surveillance, permitting meaningful reductions of force to be negotiated.
  3. Work out a complete demilitarization.

Lets hope that indeed the recent decision to resume talks between the government leaders will gain momentum and among other things, lead to the establishment of the world’s highest peace park.