‘Siachen Peace Park’
(Sanctuary Asia | April 16, 2005)
by Priya Raja
Think Siachen — Soldiers under fire, aircraft para-dropping
food and supplies, unmelting frost, symbolic of the unrelenting
standoff between Pakistan and India — insurmountable and icy.
Travel back in time, or to the future, if you will, when
"normal" life could exist here. The glacier, earlier
known as "Saicher Gharni", located between the
Karakoram and Zanskar ranges, was once guarded by a small Yarkandi
hamlet at its mouth. The walls of this settlement were unearthed
in 1912. Siachen was the meeting place for the Yarkandis and the
Baltis, who came from the west, to trade with each other. According
to legend, some Yarkandi men once descended the Ghyari nullah
and abducted a Balti woman. The incensed Baltis went to a mullah
for advice. The mullah gave them a tawiz (amulet) to be placed on
Bilafond La and instructed them to return via the Nubra valley. The
Baltis did not heed this and instead, retraced the route they had
taken. Soon after, a violent storm on the Siachen glacier destroyed
the Yarkandi settlement, leaving behind a desolate, rocky area. But
because the Baltis had not returned via Nubra, the storm spared
wild roses on the moraine and along the walls. The glacier came
to be known as Siachen: the land of wild roses. (In Balti,
sia=rose, chen=land of).
Cut to 1984. The Indian army arrived in spring and stationed
itself at Siachen, the Saltoro ridge and the Sia La and Bilafond La
passes. This was described as a pre-emptive move as India felt that
Pakistan's mountaineering expeditions in the region could
lead to territorial claims. The Teram Shehr (the destroyed city)
and Rimo glaciers, adjoining Siachen, were more easily accessible
from Pakistan and it was suspected that authorised expeditions to
the area had "liaison officers" from the Pakistani defence services.
Prior to 1984, neither country had shown much interest in this
glacier, perhaps owing to its sheer inaccessibility. The Line of
Control (LoC) runs up to a point called NJ 9842 and then north to
the glaciers. The LoC as defined by the Simla Agreement of 1972 has
been interpreted differently by both governments where the Siachen
glacier is concerned.
Costing the Earth
By some estimates, India spends about one million dollars and
Pakistan about half that amount (they have easier access from
the plains) every single day to maintain troops at Siachen, the
world's highest battlefield. Both countries have at least
one battalion each stationed here at all times, mostly at altitudes
above 5,600 m. Human habitation ends at about 4,000 m. An incredible
97 per cent of casualties occur due to high-altitude complications
coupled with the extreme cold, and troops have to be acclimatised
and rotated every month or so.
One battalion each means approximately 1,200 soldiers with food and
fuel, tents and boilers, arms and ammunition, rocket launchers and
the assorted accompaniments of war — 6,000 tonnes and more
of material — Discarded food cans and drums, fuel barrels,
tetrapacks, oil, aluminium foil, ammunition casing, parachutes,
rations lost while para-dropping, toxic chemicals, medical waste
and even human bodies that may not be recovered are left behind. At
least 40 per cent of the waste is estimated to be plastic and metal,
including crashed helicopters and vehicles in disrepair. Helicopters
don't take back the waste; it cannot be burnt and it does
not even decompose at the sub-zero temperatures that limit microbial
As a result, all waste is packed in metal drums and dropped into
crevasses. About 4,000 drums of waste pile up on the glacier each
year. Considering that troops have been stationed at Siachen for
the last two decades, and assuming a constant rate of disposal,
we're faced with 70-80,000 drums of waste — and still
Rocket propellants used in battle release harmful gases that can
be acutely poisonous at high altitudes with a low oxygen content
and slow rate of diffusion. Cobalt, cadmium, lead and chromium are
some of the toxic metals confirmed in artillery. Over the years,
the toxins will seep (have probably already seeped), into the ice
and snow, enter the Nubra river and be carried into the Shyok and
then the Indus. The "pristine" waters of the Himalaya
are already bringing down organic waste
as well as unknown toxins from the machineries of war.
Besides the construction of roads and helipads, the exchange of
fire is affecting the region's seismic balance. In 1998,
43,000 artillery shells and 2,30,000 rounds of small arms were
reportedly fired from the Pakistani side, with similar responses
from the Indian side, increasing manifold, post-Kargil. This also
causes increased heating, hastening glacial meltdown. The Siachen
glacier, known as the world's largest glacier outside the
polar region, is now reported to be receding gradually.
Snow leopards and the ibex that could once be seen here have now
been forced out of the main conflict zone. So sterile has this
glacier been rendered that some members of the armed forces find
it difficult to believe that Siachen ever supported any wildlife.
Siachen Peace Park
The area's wildlife has deserted it, temperatures have risen,
glacial melt has begun, rivers have been poisoned — yet both
sides continue to lose three soldiers per week to the elements and
spend millions of dollars to maintain the Line of Control, a line
which nature does not recognise or honour. Is there a solution to
India and Pakistan have not just been fighting each other. We have
also been waging war against nature. What we don't often think
about is how wars not only destroy human lives, but also wildlife and
their habitats. The snow leopard's home is trashed simply by
the presence of so many humans. Migrating geese, cranes and other
birds lose their way in the noise and haze of war. Some land in
oil spills and lose their ability to fly because their wings get
oil-coated. Bombs and landmines destroy forests and release toxins
that pollute and degrade ecosystems. War refugees are forced to
encroach on wilderness areas to survive. By going to war, by engaging
in combat in lands where humans were never meant to intrude, we
commit war crimes on snow leopards and cranes and flamingoes and
hordes of other species living on and around human warfronts.
The way forward
The idea of the Siachen Peace Park (SPP) has come a long way
among mountaineers and conservationists. The IUCN's World
Commission on Protected Areas (Mountains), under the Chairmanship
of Larry Hamilton, has an informal working group on the SPP;
the Italian Ev-K2-CNR Committee which will commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the first ascent of K2 in 2004, has included the
SPP proposal as part of this; the Durban World Parks Congress in
September 2003 will have the idea presented, especially at the
pre-Congress Workshop on Mountains.
In June 2001, the Himalayan Club, the Indian Mountaineering
Foundation and the Doon School Old Boys' Society, submitted
an appeal to the Prime Minister of India just before his Summit
Meeting in Agra with President Musharraf. Nothing came of it.
The question has not been discussed by the Indian Parliament, nor
officially by any government organisation, neither in India nor in
Pakistan. However, recently, Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Asia
reported that the Indian Defence Minister had been shown on NDTV News
standing at Siachen and telling the interviewer that the
"blood feud" that has caused so many deaths in Siachen should end and
that the area should be dedicated to binding the countries of Asia.
There can be no question of establishing a SPP unless both
governments decide that this should be done. Now that there is some
improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations, we feel that we should be
much more public and more active. Hence the idea of raising it at
Durban and of collecting signatures for a petition that Sanctuary
Asia is undertaking.
— Aamir Ali
Member of the IUCN-WCPA Working Group (Mountains) promoting the
Siachen Peace Park.
Siachen should be completely demilitarised and declared a
Transboundary Peace Park. The park would be contiguous with the
Central Karakoram and Khunjerab National Parks in Pakistan. Armies
on both sides, along with the State Pollution Control Boards,
must begin framing and implementing an ecologically sound garbage
disposal policy to restore this unique habitat. An informal Working
Group of the IUCNâ€™s World Commission on Protected Areas will
discuss this proposal at the Vth World Parks Congress to be held
from September 7–17, 2003 at Durban, South Africa.
Over 169 transboundary parks have been declared around the
world and have been shown to be successful even along disputed
boundaries. The World Conservation Union has already formulated an
elaborate "Draft Code for Transboundary Protected Areas in
Times of Peace and Armed Conflict".
Once troops are withdrawn, a joint surveillance plan can be worked
out together and a clean-up begun. The glacier would be dedicated
to conservation, and both countries would benefit if they were
to jointly promote sustainable tourism by regulating treks and
expeditions to Siachen.
Wild roses will bloom again, the ibex will return and the elusive
snow leopard will occasionally reveal itself.
"As a part of the normalisation process/confidence-building measures,
the governments of India and Pakistan are urged to establish a
Siachen Peace Park to protect and restore the spectacular landscapes,
which are home to so many endangered species, including the snow
Statement adopted by participants of the IUCN-WCPA South Asia
Regional workshop held in Dhaka on June 19-21, 2003, in preparation
for the World Parks Congress, this September.
To lend your strength to the effort to restore peace, ecological
harmony and dignity to India and Pakistan, readers are invited
to send an e-mail in support of the
"Siachen Peace Park Initiative"
providing your name, city, country and the
organisation you belong to or represent (if any) to
. . . . . . . . . . . .