Siachen the Melting Glacier

A special report by Australian Disaster Management Consultant, Jennifer McKay

Siachen Glacier is one of the world’s most spectacular but inaccessible places on the planet. Located in the high eastern Karakorams, it is the longest glacier in the non-polar region. Covering a distance of 76 kilometres and an area of more than 700 sq. kms, it has extreme temperatures dropping as low as -70¬ degree Celsius and receives snowfalls of up to 1,000 mm (35 ft). Most of us will never get to see it, nor would we survive in such harsh conditions even if we could, yet this region has a profound effects on the water resources of Pakistan and the lives of all who live here and its importance cannot be ignored.

The melting water from the Siachen Glacier is the main source of the Nubra River in Ladakh, which then drains into the Shyok River. The Shyok then joins 3,180 km long Indus River which flows through Pakistan, providing water for communities, and feeding agricultural systems along the way, before flowing into the Arabian Sea. What happens to the environment of the Siachen Glacier is a major concern for Pakistan, not just in military and security terms, but also as the lifeblood of the country. Any changes in the environment on Siachen Glacier, have a downstream impact on the quality and flow of water in Pakistan.

Also often referred as the "Highest Battlefield in the World", it is off limits to anyone except for the Indian Army which, since 1984, has occupied the glacier and its tributaries, five passes of the high Saltoro Ridge. Both Pakistan and India claim sovereignty over the entire Siachen region and deploy armies but Pakistan Army does not control the glacier itself. Pakistan controls the glacial valleys west of the Saltoro Ridge. Pakistani soldiers, who have served in the Siachen region, have told me tales of extreme hardship, freezing cold, and conflict. Death from extreme climatic conditions has claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers over the years. The Gyari Avalanche in 2012 which took the lives of 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians, is a reminder of the risks to those who serve there, and what a long way from help should anything go seriously wrong at high altitudes! To be in this environment for months at a time, is unimaginable to most people yet, there they serve with great courage and honour.

For mountaineers and high-altitude trekkers, to visit mostly remains a distant dream except for those few civilians chosen from defence-related institutions each year to trek with the Indian Army to the glacier in what is surely a public relations exercise to promote the continued occupation of the glacier. Without impartial civilian access to the glacier, it is unlikely in the short term that the full environmental damage be ever assessed.


The Indian troops and infrastructure far outnumber those of Pakistan in the Siachen region. In the last 31 years since India has occupied the Siachen Glacier, it has inflicted a great deal of damage on this fragile environment. Building of pipelines, drilling, chemical leakage, human waste, and construction of buildings in defiance of agreements, as well as troop movements and helicopter flights, have put pressure on the glacier and surrounding regions. Combined with the impacts of climate change on the mountains and glaciers, the impacts of this human intervention have serious implications for Pakistan.

Pakistani experts believe that the decline of the glacier is more due to the human interventions and degradation by the Indian Army than temperature rise. Most likely, it is a combination of both heavy militarization of the glacier itself, and exacerbating changes in the climate. Pakistan has for some years called for a demilitarisation of Siachen but India has strongly resisted this proposal. In a 2006 cable by the then US Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Geoff Pyatt, which came to light in the Wikileaks release of confidential embassy documents, it was reported that Foreign Secretary level talks, between Pakistan and India, had reviewed the Siachen situation. However, it was reported that an Indian official had stated that there was “no way in hell” that a withdrawal by India would be allowed to happen. In his comments at the end of the cable, Pyatt noted that “The Indian Army is resistant to giving up this territory under any condition for a variety of reasons – strategic advantage over China, internal Army corruption, distrust of Pakistan, and a desire to keep hold of advantageous territory that thousands of Indian soldiers have died protecting.” Nothing seems to have changed since then.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again included the suggestion of a complete withdrawal from Siachen Glacier in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2015 along with the demilitarisation of Kashmir. India’s response was again far from positive. Whether this will be an item on the proposed comprehensive bilateral talks with India remains to be seen.

Climate change is a global topic today and many still find it confusing due to the complexity of scientific arguments. Terminologies such as fossil fuels, carbon emissions, carbon footprints, greenhouse gasses, and the positions of the developed versus developing world, are confusing for non-followers of the debate. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly, or indirectly, to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use”.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) explains the impacts of this complex issue well in the opening statements on their website: “Climate Change is the major, overriding environmental issue of our times, and the single greatest challenge facing environmental regulators. It is a growing crisis with economic, health and safety, food production, security, and other dimensions. Shifting weather patterns, for example, threaten food production through increased unpredictability of precipitation, rising sea levels, contaminate coastal freshwater reserves and increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, and a warming atmosphere aids the pole-ward spread of pests and diseases once limited to the tropics.” They continue by noting that “mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.” These are already challenges for Pakistan.

Pakistan is considered to be the fourth most affected country by climate change and we have already seen the effects in shifts in monsoon patterns, melting of glaciers, increasing number of glacial lake outburst floods, flash and riverine floods, rising sea levels, depleting water reserves, increased salinity and droughts. In recent years Pakistan has suffered from every one of these disasters, sometimes on a massive scale. Most recently we have again seen glacial outburst floods in Chitral which caused devastation to local communities. Detailed studies of the increased number and causes of landslides and avalanches to properly assess the future disaster risks have never been undertaken. Such disasters – large and small – are likely to increase in the future. Eventually, the increase in melting and resulting glacial lake outburst and riverine floods, will shift to a decrease in water supplies as glacial areas dry up. While this won’t happen tomorrow, we must find solutions for the future now. Damage to the glaciers is not something that can be reversed in a few years.

So what is Pakistan doing about the impact of climate change and all the issues that this encompasses including the mountains and glaciers such as Siachen, and how is the country engaging in the global discussions? There is a certainly heightened awareness of climate change and a great deal of talk but to date; but it is more talk and less action. This is partly due to resources and capacity and perhaps, political will.

For two weeks in December, a major global ‘talk fest’, the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 21) was attended by world leaders and other stakeholders in Paris to discuss the issues and negotiate a global agreement for the future. Pakistan was a participant at COP 21, with a speech in the opening session by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan Minister for Climate Change also addressed the conference in a very short speech, highlighting the challenges ahead for the country. In addition, the accompanying delegation including representatives of government, NGOs and think tanks, held a series of discussions and seminars on the sidelines of COP 21. However, many in Pakistan have criticised the level of preparedness and lack of commitments from Pakistan for this major event as compared to many other countries.

Prior to COP 21, Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change in consultation with leading NGOs and think tanks that have expertise and interest in climate change, developed a draft Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) statement to be lodged for COP 21, a requirement for all participating countries. However, other ministries did not approve the INDC and instead, a very weak short non-committal INDC of less than one page was lodged. The document referred to the National Climate Change Policy (2012) but oddly, also to at least two national policies which do not yet exist – water and agriculture. These two policies are critical for the future of Pakistan. These two policies must be developed and/or finalised and implemented, taking into account the long-term impacts of the many complexities of climate change. Otherwise, in years to come, these two sectors will suffer immeasurably as will the people of Pakistan.

According to the official UN statement released at the end of COP 21, the Paris Agreement’s main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 1.5 degree Celsius limit is a significantly safer defence line against the worst impacts of a changing climate. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability to deal with the impacts of climate change.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity. For the first time, every country in the world has pledged to curb emissions, strengthen resilience and join in common cause to take common climate action. This is a resounding success for multilateralism.”

The Paris Agreement and the outcomes of the UN climate conference (COP 21) identified the crucial issues and expected outcomes as:

• Mitigation – reducing emissions fast enough to achieve the temperature goal.
• A transparency system and global stock-take – accounting for climate action.
• Adaptation – strengthening ability of countries to deal with climate impacts.
• Loss and damage – strengthening ability to recover from climate impacts.
• Support – including finance, for nations to build clean, resilient futures.

Countries were also called upon to reduce their emissions as soon as possible. The submission of national climate action plans detailing future objectives were also called for. To assist developing countries that are the most affected yet release the lowest in terms of emissions, developed countries and voluntary contributions from other countries, a fund of USD 100 billion a year is to be established. However, there are ambiguities in these funding arrangements with the contribution of developed countries providing the major contribution but in developing countries the major contribution would come from the public sector. This is likely to be difficult given the economic challenges for Pakistan and other developing countries. Further, for countries to access these funds, a competitive process will be implemented dependent on workable proposals. These will need to be backed up with sound analysis of issues and how the funds will address these.

The mountains of the Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush, and the melting of glaciers – and the reasons for this – must be part of the climate change research and solutions for Pakistan. While the topic of Siachen Glacier is sensitive, it cannot be ignored when analysing the cause and effect. At the Lahore Forum on Climate Change in October 2015, held as a lead up to COP 21, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs highlighted these issues, related to the Siachen Glacier, in his address. He said, “Long-term projections are equally ominous: owing to military activity and presence in Siachen, glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world. At this rate, many glaciers may well disappear by 2050,” and, “that is why Pakistan has proposed to withdraw forces from Siachen and suggested to establish a 'Peace Park' there.”

Siachen is not the only glacier in the Himalayan, Hindu Kush and Karakoram region – there are other thousands of glaciers – but it is one most affected by substantial human inhabitation and resulting environmental damage. The respected International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) along with specialist partners, have been developing an atlas of the glaciers to help identify and address the changes in future from Global Warming and Climate Change as well as human intervention. ICIMOD expects temperatures that across the mountainous Hindu Kush-Himalayan region will increase by about 1–2°C (in some places by up to 4–5°C) by 2050. This is alarming given the impact the receding glaciers will have on almost 200 million people in Pakistan and also the wider region. ICIMOD’s findings must be analysed from a Pakistan perspective as part of an overall process to find the way forward.

Much more needs to be done to ensure a holistic understanding of the impact of climate change agenda in Pakistan. More attention needs to be paid to the sources of our water and the mountains and glaciers which feed the river systems. Water security is critical to agriculture, food security, national security and regional security. Siachen Glacier plays a part in this and the human interventions there should be on Pakistan’s strategic agenda for both climate change as well as bilateral talks with India, no matter how sensitive and challenging a topic it is to address from regional security and other perspectives. It is unlikely though, that in the foreseeable future, India will change its tough stance despite the serious impact that the status of water flows from Siachen have on the lives of millions of people including those in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. [email protected]

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