Pad Yatra: A Himalayan Journey

Environmental degradation and a rapidly changing climate have left populations in the Himalayas vulnerable. Cloudbursts and mudslides have destroyed villages while growing levels of plastic wastes and other kinds of trash pollute rivers, harming the people who drink from them.

In a journey as spiritual as it was physical, 700 voyagers trekked through the land of 15,000 glaciers in 2010 to spread a message of love and ecological compassion. The journey, led by His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, a Buddhist spiritual leader in the region, passed through 725 kilometers of some of the world’s most dangerous and most stunning landscapes. Pad Yatras, or pilgrimages on foot, have taken place annually since 2007 in different parts of the Himalayas and South Asia.

“Many of the problems in this world are based on selfish and egoistic kinds of fighting,” said His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka. “But the spirituality is the kindness – real kindness – not only just being kind but real, true kindness to not only human beings, but nature. Including the trees and rocks and mountains.”

His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, the twelfth incarnation of Drupka. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, the twelfth incarnation of Drupka. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

The current Gyalwang Drupka, Jigme Pema Wangchen, is believed to be the twelfth reincarnation of the first Drupka, Tsangpa Gyare, who was born in the 12th century. Today’s reincarnation of the Drupka is known for his environmental activism. In 2007, he launched Live to Love, a humanitarian organization that aims to address the environment protection, education, relief aid, medical services and heritage preservation.

For the Drupka, sharing a message of kindness and compassion is essential for people living in high altitudes who often feel forgotten by their country when faced with natural disasters and uncertainties caused by a warming world. In an interview, he said he wanted people in the Himalayas to feel they played a role in the protecting the world.

The group survived conditions well below freezing, off-season snow storms and came close to starving when weather conditions made it impossible for them to carry some of their supplies through the mountains.

Followers of the Drupka wind their way through the perilous Himalayas. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
Followers of the Drupka wind their way through the perilous Himalayas. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

The experience was documented by Himalayan monk Ngawang Sodpa, who used solar power to charge his camera, in a film produced by Michelle Yeo. Nearly a third of Sodpa’s footage was lost from weather and physical damage at altitudes higher than 5,000 meters.

Along the path, the voyagers, all followers of the Buddhist Drupka Lineage, encountered hundreds of remote villages, passing on knowledge about the dangers of non-biodegradeable waste and planting trees. Native communities from the Himalayas were accompanied by travelers from around the world. As they walked, they picked up half a ton of waste, which they carried with them to the end of the journey.

“While modern products have made their way to these areas, they have not come with a sustainable means for disposal,” narrated American actress Darryl Hannah.

Voyagers take time to pray on their environmental journey. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
Voyagers take time to pray on their environmental journey. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

Trekkers planted more than 50,000 trees and rescued trapped and hurt animals. To avoid unnecessary suffering in the world, they gently blew ants off the paths they traveled along so the ants would not be crushed under hundreds of feet.

“A respect for life, no matter how small, is a defining character for this philosophy,” said Hannah. “It is the same philosophy of compassion that motivates this effort to motivate the national environment at large.”

The legacy of the Pad Yatra continues from year to year as one of the largest environmental movements the world has ever seen. Numerous villages in the Himalayas have banned plastics in their communities and have undertaken projects to plant trees.

Watch the trailer here:

Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

In June 2013, several days of torrential rains bombarded India’s northern state of Uttarakhand causing devastating glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), river flooding, and landslides. This event is considered to be the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Packed with Hindu pilgrimage sites, temples, and tourists, Uttarakhand saw entire settlements washed away. Roads were heavily damaged, stranding over 70,000 people and causing food shortages. Local rivers were flooded with dead bodies for more than a week, contaminating water supplies for the survivors.

Based on post-disaster studies, researchers from St. John’s Medical College in Bengaluru, India recently published findings indicating that the Uttarakhand flooding may have provoked sustained levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents in the region. The study, which was conducted three months after the disaster, found a 32 percent prevalence of PTSD and a wide-range of stress levels amongst the youth of one the hardest hit districts, Uttarkashi.

Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)
Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)

In order to secure these findings, the research team obtained consent from 268 adolescents at a high school in Uttarkashi. They assessed the mental health of the students by administering the Trauma Screening Questionnaire, an PTSD assessment recognized in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. Another structured questionnaire was used to gather demographic information. The average age of children who participated in the study was 14.8, with slightly more male respondents than female.

Because of a lack of mental health care infrastructure in Uttarkashi, researchers were not able to prove the glacier-related event directly caused the high rates of PTSD amongst the students in this region. However, a similar study of 411 high school students, conducted prior to 2012 in Pune, India found a lower rate of PTSD (8.9 percent for girls, 10.5 for boys). These students had not suffered from a recent natural disaster related event. A meta-study of 72 peer-reviewed articles of US children and adolescents exposed to trauma found an overall rate of PTSD of nearly 16 percent..

A study of 533 tsunami victims in South India found a much higher rate of PTSD, roughly 70.7 percent for acute PTSD and almost 11 percent for delayed onset PTSD. Although there are many factors that may be able to explain the difference in rates, the increased prevalence of PTSD in the Uttarakashi youth certainly signals a link between glacial hazards and PTSD in children.

The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)
The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)

The researchers from St. John’s Medical College note that past research has been able to establish the relationship in adult subjects between natural disasters and PTSD, “the most prevalent psychological disorder after disaster.” Thus, they claim there is a need for greater recognition of post-disaster stress disorder assessment and for interventions among adolescent victims in developing countries.

“The majority of disaster studies have focused on adults, although adolescents seem to be more vulnerable to psychological impairment after disaster which manifests in a variety of complex psychological and behavioral manifestations,” wrote the authors of the study.

The exact cause of the 2013 Uttarakashi district flooding is contested; however, the unyielding rains contributed to heavy melting of the Chorabari Glacier, 3,800 meters above sea level, and this was a significant catalyst in the event. During the week of June 20, melting at Chorabari, due to above average rainfall, led to the formation of a temporary glacial lake. Further torrential rains caused this lake to swell and overflow, inducing flash flooding and disastrous landslides and mudslides. “Eyewitnesses describe how a sudden gush of water engulfed the centuries-old Kardarnath temple, and washed away everything in its vicinity in a matter of minutes,” according to Down To Earth Magazine.

Glacier-related PTSD risk is not unique to the Gangotri glacier region. There is also evidence and historical precedence to connect these environmental and psychological factors in the Hindu Kush region, the Cordillera Blanca area of Peru, and other high mountain ranges with large glacier dimensions because of their increased risk of glacial hazards. Further, as researchers begin to examine the link between climate change related disasters and the well being of communities, they are finding the increase in disasters will likely instigate greater rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and physical illness along with PTSD in exposed populations. The recognition of the impacts of disasters on mental health is an important complement to earlier work, which has focused almost exclusively on property damage and mortality.

Major Conference Attracts Continuing Attention to Black Carbon

This past month, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Nepalese Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment hosted the International Conference on Mountain People Adapting to Climate Change. The large attendance and extensive coverage of this conference brought a great deal of attention for the Hindu Kush Himalaya region and its specific climate vulnerability. One of the central topics of discussion during the conference was the effect of black carbon deposits on the region’s glaciers. Although there is some lingering uncertainty about the precise magnitude and reach of the effects of this substance, members of the conference agreed that evidence is sufficient to begin the creation of  goals to reduce it in the near future.

Reaching this consensus is important, because the Hindu Kush Himalaya range is essential to the health of the greater Asian continent. The range spans eight countries, covers 3 million square kilometers, and is the source of ten of Asia’s major river systems. The effects of black carbon on the region’s glaciers could have broadly negative consequences for ecosystems and livelihoods. Black carbon has a double impact. Primarily, it darkens snow and ice. The dark color allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the snow and ice, which increases melting. Secondarily, black carbon is an air pollutant,. Although the tiny particles do not remain in the air for long periods, they can be inhaled by humans and cause serious respiratory problems.

Though they remain currently unrestricted, black carbon emissions are becoming an increasing concern in the region. Sources of black carbon in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region include cook-stoves, diesel vehicles, and the industrial burning of coal. In fact, one third of the black carbon suspended in the atmosphere hovers over India and China, and these particles cause at least 30% or more of the melting of glaciers in the region. Many of the gravest effects of black carbon have been well established in scientific literature, but some aspects of the substance remain up for debate. Nonetheless, “it is never wrong to start to reduce emissions of black carbon as soon as possible and as vigorously as possible,” concludes Dr. Arun Shrestha, Senior Climate Change Specialist at ICIMOD. Shifts to other forms of energy use could reduce black carbon significantly.

The conference was a clear step toward covering these critical topics in meaningful ways. “The conference’s outcome will not change everyday life of mountain people right from tomorrow,” stated Dr. David Molden, the ICIMOD’s Director General, to Xinhuanet, “but it will help us formulate policies for better adaptation solutions.” The conference marked a shift in decision-making practices, because it brought together environmental and health experts. Their efforts are bringing black carbon to a more prominent position in adaptation planning.

Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds Are Shrinking

View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)
View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.

Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.

Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)

In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.

Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)
Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)

Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.

Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.

Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.

One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.

Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Roundup: Ice Clock Art, Sonic Sakteng, and Ganges Threat

Ice Watch: The Clock Is Ticking

“The Danes have artist Olafur Eliasson to thank for the strange configuration of Greenland-bred ice. It’s part of a project titled ‘Ice Watch,’ involving a dozen icy chunks arranged to resemble an ominous clock. Though the pieces look as though they’ve been surreptitiously washed ashore in the middle of a city, the melting artifacts serve as a direct call to arms: it represents the amount of ice that disappears every 100th of a second due to conditions of global warming.”

Read the full article on Huffingtonpost.com or Olafureliasson.net.

 

The Voice of Himalayas 

“Heap creates a sonic collage with field recordings of footsteps, streams, and broken ice. ‘It features vocals by the stunning bird like dexterity of Sonam Dorji’s voice who’s day job is to record and protect all the folk song from this country before all memory of them disappear,’ Heap explains.”

Read the full article on Noisey.Vice.com.

 

The Disintegration of Gangotri Glacier Threatens River Ganges

“A 2008 research report published in Current Science titled ‘Estimation of retreat rate of Gangotri glacier using rapid static and kinematic GPS survey,’ stated: ‘The Gangotri glacier is retreating like other glaciers in the Himalayas and its volume and size are shrinking as well.’ The glacier has retreated more than 1,500 metres (m) in the last 70 years. Post 1971, the rate of retreat of the glacier has declined. Dr Kumar said the latest data projects that post 2000 the average rate of retreat of the glacier per year has been about 12 to 13 m.”

Read the full article on TheHindu.com.

India PM Modi Visits World’s Highest Battleground

On October 23, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Siachen Glacier lauding the Indian soldiers based there. Modi tweeted “From the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier and with the brave jawans and officers of the armed forces, I wish all of you a happy Diwali.”

The Indian soldiers are based in heights of 22,000 ft above sea level on the Siachen Glacier. Both sides have lost thousands of personnel, not in combat, but primarily due to frostbite, avalanche and other hazards in this harsh region. Read more on the India Pakistan dispute of Siachen Glacier here.

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India and Pakistan have thousands of troops stationed on the Siachen glacier. (Prashant Panjiar/BBC)

Modi’s visit to Siachen Glacier was right after the two sides exchanged gunfire and the 2003 ceasefire was violated. Just this past month, intense gunfire exchange in Kashmir cost 20 civilian lives and wounded dozens. Media interpreted Modi’s Siachen Glacier visit as a message for Pakistan that the status of the disputed border areas is “non-negotiable”.

Diwali is, the “festival of lights”, the largest South Asian holiday of Hindu origins, celebrating the victory of light over darkness. Happy Diwali!

Roundup: Mars Glaciers, Tourism Up and Body Found

Second Body found on Siachen Glacier in Two Months

“It has been 18 years since Gaya Prasad, a Sepoy in the Indian Army, was proclaimed dead in December 1996. His team was trapped in a minor avalanche on the Siachin Glacier and he was declared dead after prolonged searches couldn’t help in tracing him.”

Read more in India Today.

 

Record Breaking Glacier Tourism

“With three months left in the year, Glacier National Park already has had the busiest year in its history. Through September, Glacier had 2,238,761 visitors, topping the 2,200,048 visitors for all of 2010, which the park considers the busiest year in its 104-year history.”

Read more here.

 

New Evidence of Glaciers on Mars

“The morphology and geologic context of the Ius deposit are unique on Mars, and difficult to explain with an evaporative or groundwater mechanism. We propose instead that it was deposited along the margins of a past glacier. Such acid-ice interactions would be similar to those reported along the margins of Svalbard glaciers (arctic Norway), and would represent a new style of acid-sulfate formation on Mars.”

Read the study in the journal Geology. Learn more on GlacierHub about Martian glaciers here.

 

 

 

Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/15/14

India’s diesel fumes fuel glacier melt

“Kieran Cooke, has recently been in Kolkata, one of the country’s biggest and most polluted population centres: he says increasing pollution is not only harming Kolkata’s citizens – it’s also a likely contributor to climate change taking place in the Himalayan region…”

Read more here.

 

Number of Alaska Glaciers is Everchanging

“A glaciologist once wrote that the number of glaciers in Alaska “is estimated at (greater than) 100,000.” That fuzzy number, perhaps written in passive voice for a reason, might be correct. But it depends upon how you count…”

Read more here.

 

Flow chart unclear for glacial rivers

“Glaciers in the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau are a vital source of water for millions of people in Asia, but scientists question what will happen to supplies if the rate of melting continues to rise due to climate-related factors…”

Read more here.

 

 

Driving the world’s “highest road” as the glaciers vanish

Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)
Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)

When Showkat Ali began driving buses in the 1980s on the Northern India’s Khardung-la, the world’s reputed highest motorable road, the Khardung glacier was immense and represented a daunting obstacle for vehicle transport. One day, he saw the vehicles in front and behind him vanish in a sudden tide of snow while his bus was spared. “While driving, you have to stay focused on the road and avoid loud music, but the rest is in the hands of God,” the bus driver reflected, as he sought to explain his nearly fatal event.

The situation today on the Khardung-la pass isn’t what it was when Ali began driving in his early twenties, becoming the first bus driver in Ladakh to make the perilous ride from Leh to Diskit, braving the Khardung pass which reaches a dizzying altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). “The temperatures rose tremendously in the past years,” Ali said as he spoke about the generalized recession of glaciers he observed in Ladakh during his three decades of bus driving, recalling also how in his childhood the snow was deep enough to cover his thighs in winter.

Though commonly known as the “highest road“, modern GPS measuring estimates Khardung-la isn’t as high as the Mana Pass, a Indian military road near the border with Nepal, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of driving over the Indian pass. Showkat Ali’s driving feats are so impressive that National Geographic Channel India featured him on one of its programs. Back in the early 1980s, the roads were in terrible shape, snowstorms were more frequent than they are today and being trapped in a remote village for many days was common, said the now retired driver as we chatted over a cup of tea at Chotak restaurant in Leh, the capital of the former kingdom of Ladakh, on a cold winter morning in 2013.

In Showkat Ali’s view, “the glaciers of Ladakh are melting because of higher temperatures, but the problem with the Khardung-la is that too many vehicles are coming close to it.” In a place where cultural taboos prohibit human activity in the high mountains, regarded as the dwellings of divine spirits, there has been a recent proliferation of infrastructure development initiatives, such as road building and hydroelectric projects.

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When Ali started driving, the only way to build a road crossing the pass was to carve into the glacier. Later, an iron bridge was built across the glacier when the ground underneath had become too unstable. Year after year, the bridge was swept away by avalanches and built anew. But about 20 years ago, the presence of a bridge became futile as the ice progressively receded. The structure that once spanned the pass was left shattered in pieces, some of its fragments still punctuating the landscape today. Warming temperatures nullified the need for a bridge across the Khardung-la. Afterwards, although weathered and beaten by the harsh Himalayan roads, Showkat Ali’s bus could traverse the mountain pass easily, trundling along a road where glacier ice had stood not long before. “Making the trip over the Khardung-la today is like child’s play”, Ali said.

Indeed, the region of Ladakh has seen a steady decline in snowfall in recent decades, although this has been poorly monitored on the ground and much of the existing data remains closely guarded by the army in this geopolitically sensitive region, further hampering the efforts of researchers. Nonetheless, Ali’s account and all other testimonies I heard in Ladakh unmistakably echoed one another: today the weather is warmer, glaciers are vanishing, there is almost no more snow in winter, and avalanches have become rare. Soon, so will the glaciers.

This guest post was written by Karine Gagné, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Montreal. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

 

At the world’s highest battleground, India and Pakistan fight over a glacier

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India and Pakistan have thousands of troops stationed on the Siachen glacier. (Prashant Panjiar/BBC)

The highest battleground in the world is over an un-demarcated glacier in the Himalaya’s Karakoram range.

For three decades, India and Pakistan’s military dispute has incuded the militarization and control of Siachen glacier. Amid calls of demilitarization of the area from Pakistan and international actors, the Indian government has vowed to continue supporting the armed troops stationed on Siachen Glacier. With India’s recent general elections, the changing leadership in Indian parliament could directly impact the militarization of Siachen.

Siachen Glacier is the second longest glacier outside polar regions. The Indian government has spent the equivalent of $1.3 billion alone on keeping a presence on the glacier, or an estimated $1 million a day to occupy Siachen. While the glacier is an important source of water for both sides, the glacier symbolizes the violent partition and relations of the two countries that have been beleaguered with hostility and suspicion.

The conflict between the two powers began after India successfully gained control of the Siachen Glacier in 1984, marking the first time that the barren and inhospitable terrain was militarized. Pakistan claims it lost almost 900 square miles of claimed territory, and attempted several costly and failed missions to reclaim positions there. A cease-fire went into effect in 2003. By then, both sides had lost more than 2,700 personnel, not in combat, but primarily due to frostbite, avalanche and other hazards in this harsh region

Beyond NJ9842: The Siachen Saga“, a new book by Indian journalist, Nitin Gokhale, contains accounts of Indian soldiers on the glacier. The soldiers call Siachen “the toughest call of duty” as survival on the glacier rrequires combating long periods of isolation, struggling to find clean drinking water, living in cramped temporary shelters without electricity and making do with canned food. Working at 17,000 feet above sea level, the soldiers are also exposed to extreme health hazards such as blood clots in lungs, brain, and limbs. Many return home as amputees.

At any time, each side has 3,000 troops posted along the glacier. The area is a high priority for both nations; important officials from both India and Pakistan have made official visits to the area.

In 2012, 130 Pakistani troops on Siachen died in an avalanche. Since then, Pakistan has been calling for the demilitarization of the region, while India has opposed it and instead called for increased patrolling. Most recently, India’s Minister of Defense, Jitendra Singh, conducted an aerial survey of the entire glacier in February 2014. He promised the best operational preparedness resources for his country’s troops to survive the hostile environment.

The outgoing Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, leader of Indian National Congress party, had been pushing to make Siachen “a zone of peace”. Top officials from the Ministry of Defense, however, are keen to keep Siachen well-manned. Over the past three decades, India and Pakistan has had 13 rounds of talks about Siachen. In the last two talks, agreements on demilitarization were nearly reached but ultimately prevented by political interests.

The victorious Indian People’s Party in the April-May election has pledged harder stance on dealing with border “enemies” and anti-Indian terrorism. Experts from both sides fear BJP will have harsher crisis management, compared to the Congress Party, leaving an uncertain future for the region as BJP’s Narendra Modi begins his tenure as India’s 15th prime minister.