118 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Saturday, August 29, 1998
This above all
regional vignettes



The Tribune ‘Save the Himalayas’ campaign — VI
World’s highest,
biggest junkyard

About 6000 tonnes of load is flown into the Siachen Glacier every year. An almost equal amount is para-dropped there. So, one can well imagine how much hazardous waste has accumulated there since 1984 when the heights were first occupied, says Jatinder Singh Bedi

THE Soldiers trekking to their posts in Siachen — Photo by the writerSiachen Glacier is an ideal example of man defying nature, defiling the environment and paying a heavy price in terms of human lives lost.

Located between the Karakoram and Zanskar ranges, the Siachen Glacier is a 75 km-by-32 km iceland that feeds the Nubra valley. It lies east of the Saltoro ridge that splays out of the Karakoram range.

This ridge is the dividing line between the Indian Ladakh and Northern Areas under Pakistan. Strategically located near the junction of Pakistani, Chinese and Turkistan frontiers, the glacier is occupied both by the Indian and Pakistani troops. Indian troops control approximately two-thirds of the glacier. The Pakistan-occupied area, however, is much closer to the plains on their side and hence easier to maintain.

In the Siachen, human habitation is neither possible nor does it exist. Against all such odds, our troops have been on this frozen wasteland since 1984. The majority of occupied heights are above 18,500 feet. Human habitation ends with Worshi village at 13,000 feet, which is approximately more than 20 km from the base camp.

As of date, some 10,000 troops are deployed by Pakistan and a befitting number faces them on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. To cater to such a large number of troops, about 6000 tonnes of load is flown into the Siachen Glacier every year. An almost equal amount is para-dropped there.

So, one can well imagine how much hazardous waste, rubbish and garbage has been generated since 1984 when the heights were first occupied. Experts claim that 40 per cent of this waste is plastic and metal. According to Maj-Gen J.S. Dhillon, former GOC of Siachen Division, "Siachen is the world’s biggest and the highest garbage dump, from where nothing comes back. Even retrieving human beings alive is a big gamble there."

The garbage mainly consists of plastic, remains of crashed helicopters, worn out gun barrels, splinters from gun shelling, empty fuel barrels, burnt shelters, telephone wires, skid boards, para-dropping boards, edible oil containers, canisters, gunny bags, rotten vegetables, bad meat, expired tinned meat, cartons, wrappers, shoes, clothing, ration items etc. Items damaged or lost due to misjudged para-dropping too add to this list. It also includes bodies which could not be recovered.

Lakhs of parachutes are used to drop rations over the posts. Though reusable, these parachutes lie at the posts and are not reinducted.

Many of these items have ,over the period, been utilised to erect temporary shelters for living and stowage. But the ever accumulating snow continues to bury these shelters under snow, paving the way for more such erections. Those buried merge with the glacier as all-time pollutants. Many of the specially designed plastic huts meet the same fate too.

The same is true for vehicles that are declared ‘beyond economic repair’. In the plains such vehicles are auctioned.In Ladakh, these are cannibalised to the greatest extent possible and then the rest of the vehicle junk is left to rot as backloading the junk to the plains is uneconomical.

Exchange of fire at the glacier is a daily ritual. It emanates not only from small calibre weapons but big guns too. The presence of live weapon system there has converted this Baikunth of Vedas into a dreaded region full of tension and uncertainty. Not only is it destroying the serene environment of the area but also adversely affecting all natural processes. The booming guns send tremors, affecting the delicate seismic balance of the region. Wherever guns have been deployed, the surrounding ice has melted.

Harmful gases from burning propellant are released when the weapons are fired. In plains these cause no damage since they get immediately diffused. But at the glacial peaks, where the oxygen content is at its lowest, they prove to be poisonous. There have been instances when the soldiers firing weapons from their bunkers have fainted due to the emissions; some even died later.Ammunition is another poisonous pollutant. It consists of propellants and high explosive constituents that have poisonous chemical composition.

With no means of retrieving garbage from the posts and in the absence of incinerators, it continues to pollute the otherwise bacteria-free environment there. In the absence of a proper ‘Army garbage disposal policy’ for the entire Ladakh region, the glacier too cries for help.

Since the posts are scattered all over the glacier, its pollutants are also uniformly spread. The transit routes to these pickets too are not spared. The problem is more glaring at the top locations. The nature of the terrain and the fear of exposure to the enemy does not leave much scope for the jawans to occupy large areas for their pickets. Hence, the disposal is concentrated within the narrow area of their habitation and the slopes.

According to Dr S.C. Jain, professor of chemical engineering at Panjab University, plastic and metals are the most hazardous of the solid wastes being littered at Siachen. Explaining the degree and process of toxification, Dr Jain, who has over 20 years of experience in pollution control and environmental sciences, explains: "The toxification begins the moment metals and plastic come in contact with water." The degree of this toxification will, however, depend upon the duration of the contact, he says.

The oozing out of the toxic substances by these materials is a continuous phenomenon. It continues even at the extreme sub-zero temperatures when the metal and plastic lie frozen in the glacial ice, adds Dr Jain. He terms this process as "leaching". The toxins so generated are released into rivers as ‘step input’ as and when the glacier melts. Elements like cobalt, cadmium, chromium etc. have been confirmed in these toxins.

These toxic substances when released into water adversely effect aquatic life. The ‘Fish Index’ (FI) of rivers falls drastically. The drop in FI is observed more in the mountainous stretch of the river. In the plains, the FI stabilises because the water again gets aerated there. Of the metallic and plastic waste being dumped into the glacier, the lead-based metallic shells, projectiles of ammunition and the carry bags of polythene are the most dangerous.

At the glacial heights, where even drinking water is from melting the ice on stoves, bathing is a rarity. Washing of clothing, too, is not possible. Hence, 14 pairs of thermal socks per individual are given for a 90-day stay so that the problem of washing at the posts is eliminated.

But soldiers have to wash their clothing before depositing it back and leaving the glacier. Clothing used in the glacier is washed at the hot water sulphur springs on the banks of the Nubra at Panamik, a village near the base camp. Such is the rotation schedule that the washing goes on round the year. A serving Captain, just back from his glacier tenure, describes Panamik as the "world’s biggest and highest dhobi ghat". All toxic washing residue flows into the Nubra. Fed by the Siachen Glacier, the Nubra goes to join the Shayok river and ultimately flows into the Indus.

Human waste is also a problem that has to be tackled. Since the temperature there is sub-zero and the environment bacteria-free; it is believed that bio-degradation does not take place. The waste just keeps lying there. Over a period of time, due to the accumulation of snow and the filled pits, there is need to shift locations. No record, however, is kept of the sites used for the purpose by the battalions.

Suggesting the possibility of initiating bio-degradation, Dr Jain says that though the environment at Siachen is bacteria-free, the possibility of bacterial spores always exists. These withstand extreme temperatures due to a saline layer that they form around them. Given a conducive environment these can be activated to cause bio-degradation. These can also be conditioned to flourish in sub-zero conditions, he says. Scientists of the DRDO from Gwalior have undertaken a research project to convert human waste into usable fuel gas.

All this has cast an effect on the ecology and environment of this region. The wildlife has shifted, general temperatures have allegedly risen, the glacier is receding and rivers are turning toxic. At the mouth of the Nubra is the tail end of the Siachen Glacier. It is basically ‘moraine’ and appears to be a black ice mountain from a distance.

According to the locals, its edge has receded into the glacier by more than 200 yards. To substantiate this, the locals point towards telephone poles damaged due to the rock slides from the moraine. Once located at its root, the poles today are more than 100 yards away. Though glaciers move they do so by millimetres. This shift of 200 yards or more should alarm any environmentalist.

In addition, too much activity by low flying heavy duty helicopters for para-dropping at the posts disturbs the seismic balance of the region. With the road network set up right up to the end, the hamlets have prospered. But it has increased the vehicular traffic and thus the emission level.

The native wildlife too has been adversely affected. Snow leopard, ibex, etc have been natives of this region. A decade ago, the snow leopard was often spotted here. Now that their habitat has been encroached upon by human beings, these wild animals have shifted and are never sighted near any of the posts along the glacier.

Given such a pristine natural environment, one would love to take a sip from any flowing brook, stream or a waterfall. But due to the ever increasing pollution at Siachen, caution is the word. Such is the concern of the authorities that the troops here are advised to consume water only from the earmarked water sources from which samples are pre-tested by military engineers.

While in the other Himalayan areas human actions are destroying only the ecology of the region, at Siachen man seems determined to wilfully destroy himself too. Deaths due to inclement weather dominate the fatality rate here. On an average, three soldiers die every week. Soldiers die less due to cross-border firing and more because of ailments resulting from the extremely high altitudes.

Blindness, insanity and amputations are common. According to studies, the physical performance at the altitude of 4500 metres reduces by 40 per cent. The Army tends to acclimatise the troops before induction into such hazardous areas. But strangely enough, according to a medical study, beyond 5330 metres acclimatisation becomes ineffective and the heart does not perform efficiently.

Diplomatic solution towards withdrawal from Siachen is nowhere in sight. With the Army silent to the needs of the environment at Siachen and the J&K Pollution Control Board following suit, the famous Siachen Glacier is speeding towards the fate that Mount Everest is meeting today.


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