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Making Siachen a Mountain of Climate Responsibility

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Making Siachen a Mountain of Climate Responsibility

Climate protection on the disputed glacier is important for both India and Pakistan – and could even jumpstart an improvement in their relationship.

Making Siachen a Mountain of Climate Responsibility
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Danokhan

On November 14, at the COP27 Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Pakistan was chosen among the seven “path-finder” countries eligible to receive Global Shield against Climate Risks funding. The eligible countries – also including Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Fiji, Ghana, the Philippines, and Senegal – were announced jointly by a grouping of 58 climate-vulnerable economies, known as the Vulnerable 20 Group of Finance Ministers (V20), and the Group of Seven (G-7). The fund — with an initial contribution of 170 million euros (around $175 million) from Germany and more than 40 million euros (around $41 million) from other countries — is aimed at having pre-arranged, ready-to-deploy disaster relief assistance for the provision of social protection to affected communities through insurance and other means.

Pakistan was selected for the fund because only a few months ago devastating climate change-induced floods killed 1,100 people and affected 33 million more in the country. Pakistan suffered massive floods in 2010 as well, in which 1,700 people lost their lives and 20 million were otherwise affected.

The two floods might be just the beginning of massive climate calamities in the region. A recent study based on satellite data from the past 40 years shows that all the Himalayan glaciers have consistently lost 18 inches of their mass from 2000 to 2016, which is double the rate of loss from 1975 to 2000. Another recent study by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), concluded that over one-third of the Himalayan glaciers will vanish by the turn of the century – even if the rise in global temperature is restricted to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While being awarded funding is a good omen for Pakistan, the Global Shield against Climate Risks is not, in fact, going to “shield” Pakistan from natural disasters of similar magnitude, which are likely to occur in the future. The fund will only provide post-disaster relief or, at best, some support with disaster preparedness and management. Climate adaptation and mitigation would remain within the ambit of Pakistan’s own policy responses.

Pakistan does not contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and thus cannot do much about the overall situation. It does, however, need to take policy action and solicit regional support on other aspects of climate mitigation and adaptation.

India is no less susceptible to the impacts of climate change itself. Around the same time as Pakistan’s floods in 2022, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh faced floods that affected 245,000 people.

The Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) glaciers are the lifeline for tens of millions of South Asians. The rapid glacial melt not only threatens water security in the long term, but in the short term is contributing to the region’s devastating flood events. Preserving these glaciers will take joint efforts.

Nevertheless, India and Pakistan are finding it hard to engage in a meaningful dialogue on anything under the sun at this point – even on COVID-19. Pakistan’s then-minister of state for health raised the longstanding Kashmir dispute with India during a video conference on the subject under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Given the ICIMOD’s doomsday prediction, not engaging on climate action should no longer be considered an option by both India and Pakistan. The regional climate emergency should alert India and Pakistan to not only cooperate on protecting the fragile ecosystem of the HKH through climate action but treat it as a shared responsibility.

The best starting point would be the demilitarization of the highest battleground on planet earth: the Siachen glacier, on which the armies of the two countries have been lodged since 1984. There have been no active hostilities in the area for more than 20 years now, yet the two armies are constantly deployed, fighting the elements of nature at temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees below freezing.

While the two countries are bickering over where their un-demarcated border lies in the area, the presence of their armies is destroying the fragile ecosystem. They need to instead shift their focus from control to responsibility. The two countries should demilitarize the region like it was before 1984 and take responsibility as the environmental custodians of their respective parts of the glacial region, i.e., the areas currently under their respective military controls. This would entail an agreement not only ensuring the non-remilitarization of the region but also non-habitation in addition to commitments not to divert or extract natural resources (such as water, minerals, etc.) in one administrative area without consultation with the other government.

The agreement could oblige the two governments to exchange environmental protection data from their respective areas of climate jurisdiction and coordinate any civilian exploration activity in the region, whether scientific or resource-oriented. The United Nations Military Observers’ Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) – which has been observing the Line of Control (LOC) dividing the disputed region of Kashmir between Indian- and Pakistani-administered territories since 1949 – could be given the additional responsibility to remotely monitor remilitarization in the un-demarcated Siachen region.

As I wrote in a previous article:

Similarly, foreign tourists, mountaineers, or scientists could be obliged to obtain visas for both India and Pakistan and special permission from both governments for visiting any part of the demilitarized zone in the administrative domain of any country. At the same time, joint exploratory and research activities conducted by India and Pakistan with official permissions and coordination of both countries will have to be encouraged to gradually diminish the relevance of the AGPL [the Actual Ground Position Line of the two militaries, dividing the control of the un-demarcated area between the two countries].

An agreement on demilitarization of the glacier for climate action will demonstrate to the world as well as the people of India and Pakistan that the governments of the two states are serious about protecting the future generations of South Asia. More importantly, it could result in a shift in focus from control to responsibility on some of the thorniest issues between the two countries, like water sharing and the Kashmir dispute as a whole.

While Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India, had called for turning Siachen into a “mountain of peace” more than 15 years ago, contemporary realities necessitate its transition into a “mountain of climate responsibility.”