The Pakistan-India military stand-off at the Siachen glacier in the frozen mountains of Kashmir is speeding up glacier melt as well as costing lives, say experts.
On Saturday, an enormous avalanche, one of the biggest in 20 years, struck a Pakistan military camp near Siachen glacier, burying 130 people. Despite days of searching, no survivors have been found.
The scale of the disaster has yet again raised questions about the costly deployment of Indian and Pakistan military in the disputed territory around glacier, known as the highest battlefield in the world.
Thousand of troops from both countries have been stationed at Siachen glacier since 1984, when India occupied the heights of the area, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. An estimated 8,000 troops have died in the glacier’s freezing wastes since the conflict began, more from the tough conditions and avalanches than from actual fighting. There have been skirmishes since 1984, though the area has been largely quiet since a ceasefire in 2003.
The Siachen dispute is part of the broader conflict over Kashmir, which is at the core of the strains between India and Pakistan that have led to three major wars since 1947.
But environmental experts say the heavy military presence is also speeding up the melting of the glacier. "More than 30 percent of the glacier has melted since 1984, while most of the Karakoram glaciers on the Pakistani side expanded," according to Pakistani water expert Arshad Abbasi.
"Indian army officials have described the Siachen as ‘the world’s biggest and highest garbage dump," an article for the Stanford Environmental Law Journal quoted a US expert as saying. "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.
Saturday’s avalanche has revived demands for the demilitarization of the glacier region. Over the past years, scientists and conservationists have called for the area to be made into a jointly-managed conservation area, or “peace park.”
“Both Pakistan and India should take bold steps for solving the issue and should hand over glacier to the UNESCO and scientists for studying and assessing climatic impacts,” Arshad Abbasi urged this week.