19 April 2012 - The avalanche that engulfed the Gayari camp located on the Siachen Glacier, burying 124 soldiers and 14 civilians, is a national tragedy. It has also brought attention to the Siachen Glacier conflict and questions are now rightly being asked of the tactical and strategic importance of having troops posted on the world’s highest battlefield.
Nawaz Sharif has called for Pakistan to be sensible and to withdraw its troops from Siachen. This is the first time I can think of a mainstream Pakistani politician (and former prime minister) calling for a troop withdrawal with respect to India.
For a number of years now, several academics and environmental activists, have been arguing that the environment can be an effective means of conflict resolution. Specifically, he has been advocating for both sides to declare the Siachen Glacier a peace park. He is not alone. Civil society, opinion makers and academics from around the world have been advocating the same.
The IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas has nearly 200 transboundary protected areas. The UNESCO world heritage list identifies important natural heritage. There are also numerous examples of transboundary management of contiguous protected areas where countries have joined hands for the preservation of the environment. There are too many instances to list here, but noteworthy examples are the cooperatively managed Indian Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and Rann of Kutch Wildlife Sanctuaries. Even Israel, Egypt and Jordan have recognised the paramount importance of the environment and have agreed to jointly manage the marine ecosystem near the Sharm-el Sheikh Peninsula.
There is good reason to be concerned about the environment in Siachen. It is the world’s largest non-polar glacier and sits — along with the other glaciers of the Hindukush, Karakoram and the Himalayan ranges — on the earth’s Third Pole: the waters of these glaciers provide food and drinking water to nearly one billion people. Both India and Pakistan are extremely vulnerable to climate change and face similar food and water security issues. Meanwhile, Siachen has turned into the world’s highest waste dump as none of the supplies, food, oil, equipment — and quite often soldiers — ever return.
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