Mention of Pakistan’s mountain peaks and glaciers conjures up images of idyllic scenic views and pristine natural beauty. However, much to the dismay of trekkers and tourists, the serene peaks are now littered with trash and human waste much like the congested and cacophonic cities of the country.
Elixir of life corrupted
According to glaciologist Christoph Mayer, who has worked on the Karakoram mountains range since 2004, the trash could potentially degrade the quality of drinking water supplied by the glacial melt.
Pakistan has around 5,200 glaciers, according to a 2005 glacier inventory conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. These glaciers span over 15,000 square kilometres and provide almost 80 per cent of the water in the River Indus.
“The only way you can save the water coming from the glacier from being polluted is to bring back everything that you take to the glacier,” explained Mayer, a professor at Germany’s Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
And yet, when trekking expeditions reach the base camps or the glaciers, they are technically not liable for littering, as they deposit a $200 ‘pollution fee’ per expedition beforehand to the G-B Council Secretariat in Islamabad.
“At the K-2 base camp, a 1.5 litre of soda costs Rs1,500,” said Raja Abid Ali, the director of the Central Karakoram National Park. “Why would they [the trekkers] bring such items back down with them when they have already paid for proper disposal?”
All about the money
According to officials working in the area, the increase of waste stems from administrative problems that hinge on poor financial management.
Secretariat officials revealed that around 80 per cent of the fee paid by expeditions is passed on to the G-B treasury. From there, the government is responsible for allocating funds to the tourism department for waste disposal on high-altitudes.
An estimated 60 trekking expeditions go to the Baltoro glacier in the Karakoram each year, according to private estimates. Even though each expedition varies in number, the estimated Rs120,000 expeditions pay could certainly provide some relief for the glaciers.
Yet in spite of that as the officials suggested, it seems that waste disposal funds are never allocated properly to the tourism department or the park officials.
When contacted for comments, G-B Tourism Department Secretary Akhtar Hussain did not respond.
No efforts, no improvement
“The discarded trash refuses to go away on its own. Usually, it gets covered by layers of snow and ice,” remarked Ali. “When a glacier’s cover bursts, the trash gets unearthed naturally. In one private cleaning effort in Baltoro glacier, an oxygen cylinder dated 1947 was discovered.”
Raffaele Del Cima, the country managing director of EvK2CNR, an Italy-based international research organization, agreed with Ali and stressed upon the importance of effective initiatives.
“It was a huge mess,” he said, speaking about the first cleanliness drive his organisation launched at Baltoro. So far, according to their website, EvK2CNR has collected and disposed off at least 30 tonnes of waste from the glacier and K-2 base camp since 2009.
Del Cima said that possible solutions include sensitising tourists to bring back their garbage, routing pollution fee directly to local communities and the tourism department, and improving the fee model, which is currently ad-hoc.
“It should be based on a scientific study of how much waste is generated by each expedition and what is the cost of its collection, transportation and disposal,” he said.
According to him, such a study has been conducted and made part of the draft management plan for the CKNP, which is pending approval from the G-B government.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2013.