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Issues of National, Ecological and Human Security in the Siachen Glacier Region

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 25, 2012

    In an earlier work published almost a decade ago1, I had visualised three perspectives that would drive the issue of the future of the Siachen conflict: national security, human security, and ecological security. From the point of view of national security, the issue is ideational, cartographic, and intimately linked to the unresolved issue of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It is unlikely that policy elites will make any concessions on that. This national security is maintained by the professional militaries of both India and Pakistan, who too are unlikely to concede to the other; all units will seek combat under the institution of the strong regimental system. When viewed against the issue of individual human security, it appears that the regimental system would be resilient enough to sustain Operation Meghdoot (or Operation Ababeel in Pakistan). The threshold for acceptance of casualties due to weather or firepower is the key. The third driver is ecological reasoning and concerns. Here, I argued that what the battle brings out clearly is that for the first time in the history of wars, the degradation of the terrain and a larger ecological threat due to war would be the reasons for an end to hostilities. I had then conceptualised the inter-se comparison of national, ecological and human security in a figure which is reproduced below (see Figure 1).

    While researching in 2002, I did not visualise that a ceasefire may be declared. But it occurred in 2003 post Operation Parakram. While the end of exchange of small arms and artillery fire was welcome, high altitudes lead to unavoidable casualties due to extreme cold, lack of oxygen, terrain, climate and weather. Despite this, all units posted there performed exceedingly well. In fact, an indicator of a good unit was one which did not suffer any weather- or altitude-related casualty. Although I had served on the divisional staff dealing with logistics in the 1980s, I did visit helicopter-maintained posts such as Amar and felt the privation of troops at that height, and was impressed with the capacity of the Indian military to defend the glacier, irrespective of the cost. Barring individual cases of poor health and low mental toughness, units on the whole see the tenure as a challenge. Though exhausting on troop health, it was accepted as routine.

    In a subsequent article published in 20082, I drew attention to the ceasefire in place since November 2003 and argued that demilitarisation in the Siachen region was held up due to suspicion, as India did not trust Pakistan to not occupy the Saltoro ridge if the actual ground position line (AGPL) were to be demilitarised and vacated by the former. Further, while negotiations would continue, it is important to visualise what the situation would be if there is a sudden and accelerated meltdown of glaciers in the Himalayas over the next 10–15 years. Once the glacier/snow caps melt, only the rocks would remain. Like a skeleton, the ridges and spines of the feature would need to be occupied. But rapid melting is bound to cause flash floods and a series of mini disasters downstream. It is unlikely that the existing defence works and elaborate communication infrastructure, built originally on ice as hard as rock, would last. Artillery gun platforms which have become ice pillars would melt rapidly, making re-deployment necessary—a demanding task. Unexpected melting would make movement by foot extremely dangerous, if not impossible, on existing glacial paths on moraines. Level and firm dropping zones and helipads may crumble with the rapid snowmelt. In sum, the impact of rapid degradation of the Himalayan glaciers, such as Siachen, would be phenomenal.

    In this regard, we were witness to a recent example in the form of a massive avalanche on April 7, 2012, in which over 100 Pakitani soldiers and defence staff were killed. In 2003, an event such as this was far from my mind. It would now have to be included in all calculations.

    Siachen is just one of the glaciers in the Karakoram region. While the human and material waste in the area is piling up and needs to be removed or reduced (bringing back equipment and other material may be impossible), the ecological argument is region specific. Of course, black carbon and other emissions from military transport impact on glacier and snow, but a greater threat is posed by global warming due to the greenhouse effect resulting from excess fossil fuel use emission by developed countries. The entire third pole region, including Tibet, is thus under indirect threat. Siachen, of course, is the symbolic stage for the human drama. A recent study in Nature Geoscience shows that some glaciers in the Himalayas have gained a small amount of mass between 1999 and 2008, thus bucking the global trend of glacier decline. Current Science, the flagship journal of the Indian Academy of Science, likewise has published a number of articles on the unending debate among geologists on whether the melting of the Siachen is hype or not. While the ecological health of any natural system is important, the discourse has now swung towards human security—or value of the life of soldiers.

    The April 7, 2012, avalanche at Gyari resulted in the tragic loss of 127 Pakistani soldiers and 10 civilians. After the incident, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parveez Kyani, called for demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier for the development of Pakistan and environmental reasons. A new paradigm has now entered the discourse, but do South Asian countries value human life?

    Policy-makers now have to re-evaluate national security, ecological security, and human security. Which is most important? It is unlikely that the three can be separated, as they are all entwined. A pull back without trust may lead to another bout of fighting if Pakistan were then to occupy the heights on AGPL. This will be a greater ecological and human disaster.

    Glacier outburst flows, extreme weather conditions, and events such as avalanches, it seems, may increase due to global warming in the near future. In Figure 1, the timeline ended at 2010 with a question mark for subsequent years. It would augur well for both sides to conduct more joint scientific studies and, without any loss of face on either side, put in place an AGPL agreement within a reasonable time frame.