As an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, the first time I heard about Siachen I thought, “Black China? What’s that?” Since in Farsi, Sia is black and Cheen is China. To my young mind, it was just another Urdu word that I needed to learn and then get excited over. I read the one rupee Tarzan and Omroo Ayyar story books and the first time I learned what chalaang meant, I literally jumped! Back to black China, though. Years went by, and I learnt what Siachen was.
I the past eight years since I left Pakistan, I must admit, I’ve wondered about it. Writing about war and human rights around the world is a tough business. You’ll often find yourself wondering about conflicts that you don’t even have a stake in. I wondered how thousands of troops could be stationed in that unforgiving place for months, not just away from their families, but away from all that helps us appreciate being alive – the shade of a green tree, the running water of a stream, the voices of songbirds, even the azaan in the morning or the bajhans at temples.
How does it feel to be so isolated from all that beauty and warmth? I don’t ever wish to know and to those who do, I salute you. It surprises me how some people manage to go do that out of loyalty to their people.
But what surprises me more is how people send young, passionate men into such a desert of deprivation. Now that the spotlight is on Siachen, it occurred to me to look at the issues from a different angle. I believe in the goodness of humanity and to me, it just looked wrong to see people being sent to get tortured by nature by others. My instinct tells me it’s possible they don’t know what a glacier really is so they don’t feel like those they send away are miserable. I’m not even sure the majority of Pakistanis or Indians know what a glacier is. I didn’t for a long time.
I accidentally stumbled upon its meaning while clicking on random links on Wikipedia like we all do. Not that it is of any practical use, however, it does give me a sense of suffering that is inflicted upon thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers who have to ‘guard’ Siachen and the few mountains surrounding it.
Glacier is derived from the Latin word glacies, which means ice. They are formed when snow accumulates over an area over time. The process is simple: most snowfall melts, however, at very high altitudes when the average annual melt of snowfall is less than the actual snowfall, excess snow manages to pile up. Over a long period, sometimes centuries, the size of this accumulation becomes massive and a giant block-like structure of ice and snow is formed. The pressure melts the snow and ice at the bottom layer and the block slowly begins to move downward, making what looks like a slow moving giant river of ice.
Obviously you can melt it away to get at the rocky barren ground, but it’ll snow again and it’ll build again. The mountains surrounding it are plain rock – no large gold or diamond deposits there. They aren’t even of that much strategic importance. The only thing you could even remotely call important there is the glacier itself.
Now the question is, India controls it all of the glacier. Why doesn’t it just chop the ice up and take it to New Delhi or Mumbai? Well, that’s because it’s 70 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide. There’s enough ice to feed the entire world ice cream for a few years, but there’s no maai ka laal to move it.
It gets even worse. As mentioned above, the glacier over the course of the year, slowly melts and then that meltwater is replenished by more snowfall. Siachen’s meltwater is the main source of Nubra River, which flows into the Shyok River inside the Indian Kashmir. The Shyok River then quietly creeps across the LoC and joins NOT the Ganga, NOT the Brahmaputra, NOT the Narmada, but the Indus River inside Pakistan. Yep, the water from Siachen has been flowing across Pakistan, quenching the thirsts of humans and other animals and providing farmers with livelihoods all these years…
Here’s a map, showing where the waters go. The arrow is pointing at Siachen Glacier’s location.
Just to be clear: Siachen is a giant block of ice. The ice melts and joins a river inside India. India allows these rivers to pour into Pakistan and then Pakistan uses the waters for whatever it wishes. This makes the argument that India controlling Siachen is bad laughable. If India wanted to harm Pakistan’s interests through Siachen, all it had to do was divert the meltwater away from the Indus.
The absolute worst part is the fact that research is showing that continued military activity on Siachen is actually quickening the pace of the melting. If the Siachen melts faster than it is replenished by snowfall, it could disappear altogether and that will not affect India, but Pakistan. On whose borders maps show this block of ice to be becomes even more meaningless when you realize that the fight over where the line is drawn is endangering precious water flow into Pakistan!
Looking from the outside, it’s tragic that over 100 soldiers and citizens of Pakistan died over a giant block of ice whose waters are coming into Pakistan anyway. It will be even more tragic if more Pakistanis and Indians continue to suffer and die thousands of meters above ground where temperatures can be as low as 50 centigrades. Not to mention the financial impact of pouring money into something that could be resolved through negotiations.
If that money is spent on building schools, for instance, maybe more Pakistanis and Indians would know what a glacier is from their geography teacher instead of Wikipedia.
Next time time you take a drink of Siachen from the Indus, please think about the thousands whose lives are melting away in that frozen hell.