ISLAMABAD: Harsh weather conditions hampering the search for 138 people buried under a huge avalanche at Pakistan Army camp will last at least another 24 hours, a senior meteorological official said Wednesday.
A huge wall of snow crashed into the remote Siachen Glacier base high in the mountains in disputed Kashmir early on Saturday morning, smothering an area of one square kilometre (a third of a square mile).
As more than 450 rescuers worked in sub-zero temperatures, experts said there was little chance of finding any survivors at the site, which is at an altitude of around 4,000 metres (13,000 feet).
The site of the Gayari camp has been hit by heavy snow in recent days and Arif Mahmood, the head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department said the bad weather was likely to last another day.
“The harsh weather conditions in Gayari will begin to improve from midday Thursday,” Mahmood told AFP in Islamabad.
“However, it will remain overcast today with thunderstorms and snowfall in Gayari and its surrounding areas.”
Rescuers have been using mechanical diggers and shovels to dig through the vast expanse of snow, rock and ice dumped by the avalanche, but efforts to fly in more heavy equipment have been hindered by the weather.
Mahmood said flight operations to Gilgit and Skardu – the two nearest towns – should be able to resume late on Thursday or early on Friday.
Another weather official, who was supervising weather forecasts for the area, told AFP that the temperature at Gayari would be around minus eight to 10 degrees Celsius.
Photographs released by the military Tuesday showed diggers and rescuers at work on an almost featureless expanse of dirty grey snow and ice, with no trace visible of the camp that had been the 6th Northern Light Infantry headquarters.
The site is surrounded by some of the world’s highest peaks and lies near the de facto border with India in the militarised region of Kashmir, which has caused two of the three wars between the two countries since independence in 1947.
The nuclear-armed rivals fought over Siachen in 1987, but guns on the glacier have largely fallen silent since a slow-moving peace process was launched in 2004.
Siachen standoff taking heavy environmental toll
Pakistan and India’s military standoff in the frozen high mountains of Kashmir is not only costing soldiers’ lives, experts say – it is also wreaking havoc on the environment.
Environmental experts say the heavy military presence is speeding up the melting of the glacier, one of the world’s largest outside the polar regions, and leaching poisonous materials into the Indus river system.
Faisal Nadeem Gorchani of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad said the glacier had shrunk by 10 kilometres (six miles) in the last 35 years.
“More than half of the glacier reduction comes from the military presence,” he said.
Hydrologist and Siachen specialist Arshad Abbasi gave an even more alarming assessment of the glacier’s decline, and said that non-militarised areas had not suffered so badly.
“More than 30 percent of the glacier has melted since 1984, while most of the Karakoram glaciers on the Pakistani side expanded,” he said.
Troop movements, training exercises and building infrastructure all accelerate melting, Gorchani said.
Waste from the military camps is also a major problem, harming the local environment and threatening to pollute the water systems that millions of people across the subcontinent depend upon.
“Indian army officials have described the Siachen as ‘the world’s biggest and highest garbage dump’,” US expert Neal Kemkar said in an article for the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.
The report quoted estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature saying that on the Indian side alone, more than 900 kilos (2,000 pounds) of human waste was dropped into crevasses every day.
Kemkar said that 40 percent of the military waste was plastics and metal, and as there are no natural biodegrading agents present, “metals and plastics simply merge with the glacier as permanent pollutants, leaching toxins like cobalt, cadmium, and chromium into the ice.”
“This waste eventually reaches the Indus River, affecting drinking and irrigation water that millions of people downstream from the Siachen, both Indian and Pakistani, depend upon,” the report said.
Kemkar also warned the conflict had affected wildlife, with the habitat of animals such as the endangered snow leopard, the brown bear and the ibex — a type of wild goat — all threatened.