The avalanche that engulfed the Gayari camp located on the Siachen Glacier, burying 124 soldiers and 14 civilians, is a national tragedy. It has also brought attention to the Siachen Glacier conflict and questions are now rightly being asked of the tactical and strategic importance of having troops posted on the world’s highest battlefield.
Nawaz Sharif has called for Pakistan to be sensible and to withdraw its troops from Siachen. This is the first time I can think of a mainstream Pakistani politician (and former prime minister) calling for a troop withdrawal with respect to India.
For a number of years now, several academics and environmental activists, have been arguing that the environment can be an effective means of conflict resolution. Specifically, he has been advocating for both sides to declare the Siachen Glacier a peace park. He is not alone. Civil society, opinion makers and academics from around the world have been advocating the same.
The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas has nearly 200 transboundary protected areas. The UNESCO world heritage list identifies important natural heritage. There are also numerous examples of transboundary management of contiguous protected areas where countries have joined hands for the preservation of the environment. There are too many instances to list here, but noteworthy examples are the cooperatively managed Indian Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and Rann of Kutch Wildlife Sanctuaries. Even Israel, Egypt and Jordan have recognised the paramount importance of the environment and have agreed to jointly manage the marine ecosystem near the Sharm-el Sheikh Peninsula.
There is good reason to be concerned about the environment in Siachen. It is the world’s largest non-polar glacier and sits — along with the other glaciers of the Hindukush, Karakoram and the Himalayan ranges — on the earth’s Third Pole: the waters of these glaciers provide food and drinking water to nearly one billion people. Both India and Pakistan are extremely vulnerable to climate change and face similar food and water security issues. Meanwhile, Siachen has turned into the world’s highest waste dump as none of the supplies, food, oil, equipment — and quite often soldiers — ever return. The IUCN has estimated that the Indian occupation of the Glacier results in about 2,000 pounds of human waste being dumped into it every day. Information about the Pakistani side is tough to come by, but Colonel (retd) Tahir Kardar told me that it includes a helicopter that landed, froze and could never be salvaged.
The human occupation of Siachen is an environmental hazard. The effects of climate change on glaciers is a subject of topical concern, but little research on Siachen has been undertaken because of security issues. The waste produced at the Glacier feeds the Nubra River and then flows into the Shyok River and eventually joins the Indus.
In an excellent paper published in the Stanford Law Review, Neal A Kemkar set out strong grounds for legal intervention because of these environmental concerns. Both India and Pakistan are signatories to the Rio Declaration of 1992, which states that “States shall … respect international law providing for the environment in times of armed conflict”. Both countries are also signatories to the Hague Conventions, Geneva Convention and Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification, which all stress on the four fundamental principles armed conflict must follow: necessity, proportionality, selectivity and humanity. The Siachen Glacier dispute, in terms of lives and money cost versus strategic benefit obtained, fails on these counts.
Both countries also have robust environmental rights and laws. The Supreme Courts of both countries recognise the fundamental rights of citizens to a clean and healthy environment, as well as access to unpolluted water. Both countries also have legislation that protects the environment. However, the problem with the legislation is that it is of the ’command and control’ variety, in that it sets limits for pollution in industry and then enforces those limits. However, neither state has an industry on Siachen to command or control. The Glacier is in the control of the armed forces and the governments of India and Pakistan do not have control over the Siachen ecosystem. Herein lies the problem.
Both countries can make enormous headway using the environment as a platform of exchange. The platform is uncorrupted by Kashmir, the war on terror or other issues that form the composite dialogue. A declaration or accord recognising both countries’ commitment to protecting the environment and acknowledging the challenges of climate change could easily pave the way for a Siachen peace park management system, where elected representatives from either side act as co-chairs along with representatives from the armed forces and an international NGO (such as the IUCN or the WWF), and line ministries could set about demilitarising the Glacier and preparing a transition of control from the military to environment managers. The international goodwill that would be generated by such an act could also be leveraged by either country to its advantage.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2012.