The dark green part in the map are karakorams and the dark orange, small part is Siachen
THE LARGEST LAND OF GLACIERS
by Nayyar Hashmey, PhD
In Pakistan, we have more glaciers than any other land outside the north and south poles. Our glacial area covers some 13,680 sq. km which represents an average of 13 per cent of mountain regions of the upper Indus Basin. Baltistan in our north eastern corner and in the heart of Karakorams, provides the world’s most magnificent mountain scenery and mountaineering possibilities. Renowned for the largest glaciers and towering peaks, it has four 8000m peaks, and many over 7000m.
The glaciers in Pakistan can rightly claim to possess the greatest mass and collection of glaciated space on the face of earth. In fact, in the lap of our Karakoram mountains alone there are glaciers whose total length would add up to about 6,160 sq. km. To put it more precisely, as high as 37 per cent of the Karakoram area is under its glaciers against Himalayas’ 17 per cent and European Alps’ 22 per cent. The Karakorams have one more claim to proclaim; its southern flank (east and west of the enormous Biafo glacier) has a concentration of glaciers which works out to 59 per cent of its area.
Eric Shipton, a great mountaineer who perished in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, while describing the peaks and glaciers in Pakistan wrote in his account “To describe this region is to indulge in superlatives, for everywhere you look are the highest, the longest and the largest mountains, glaciers and rivers in the world”.
Making some allowance for Shipton’s tendency towards slight exaggeration, born out of awe and fascination, the fact remains that Pakistan boasts of the largest share of the highest number of glaciers after the poles.
The biggest glacier is Siachen, which is 75 kms in length. The Hispar (53 kms) joins the Biafo at the Hispar La (5154.16 metres (16,910 ft) to form an ice corridor of 116.87 kms (72 miles) long. The Batura, too is 58 kms in length. But, the most outstanding of these rivers of ice is the 62 kms Baltoro. This mighty glacier fed by some 30 tributaries constitutes a surface of 1291.39 sq. kms.
Siachen is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya mountains. It is the longest glacier in the Karakoram and second longest in the world’s non-polar areas. It ranges from an altitude of 5753m (18,875 ft.) above sea level at its source from a pass near the China border to its snout at 3620m (11,875 ft.)
The glacier lies south of the great watershed that separates Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent. The 75 km long Siachen lies between the Saltoro Ridge line immediately to the west and the mainKarakoramrange to the east. The Saltoro Ridge originates in the north from the Sia Kangri peak on the China border in the Karakoram Range. The crest of the Saltoro Ridge’s altitudes ranges from 5450 to 7720m (17,880 to 25,330 feet). The major passes on this ridge are, from north to south, Sia La at 5589m (18,336 ft), Bilafond La at 5450m (17,880 ft), and Gyong La at 5689m (18,665 ft.)
THE CONFLICT ZONE
This largest ice mass in the subcontinent however, continues to mar relations between India and Pakistan.
Located in the disputed region of Kashmir its average winter snowfall is 10.5m (35 ft.) and temperatures can dip to minus 50○C (minus 58○F). In spite of this severe climate, the word ‘Siachen’ ironically means ‘the place of wild roses, a reference some people attribute to the abundance of Himalayan wildflowers found in the valleys below the glacier, but specifically refers to the thorny wild plants which grow on the rocky outcrops.
Presently the glacier is also the highest battleground on earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since April 13, 1984. Pakistan maintains permanent military personnel in the region at a height of over 6,000m and so does India. The site is a prime example of mountain warfare.
The glacier’s melting waters are the main source of the Nubra River, which drains into the Shyok River. The Shyok in turn joins the Indus River. The glacier’s melting waters are a major source of the river Indus, a vital water source for Pakistan
The conflict in Siachen stems from the confusion in the improperly demarcated territory on the map beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi Agreement and the 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, merely stating that from the NJ9842 location the boundary would proceed “thence north to the glaciers.” In the 1960′s and 1970′s, however, the United States Defense Mapping Agency (now National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) issued maps showing detailed position of the area and made their maps available to the public and pilots as proceeding from NJ9842 east-northeast to the Karakoram Pass at 5534m (18,136 ft.) on the China border. Other international (governmental and private cartographers and atlas producers) confirmed this position. This implied in a cartographical and categorical allocation of the entire 2700 square kilometers (1040 square miles) Siachen area to Pakistan. However, prior to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area presumably due to the extremely harsh conditions which prohibited any such presence.
In the 1970s and early 1980s several mountaineering expeditions applied to Pakistan to climb high peaks in the Siachen area and Pakistan granted them, which reinforces our claim on the area, as these expeditions arrived on the glacier with a permit obtained from the Govt. of Pakistan.
The glacier is well inside Pakistani territory. However, India with a design to keep an eye over Pakistan’s strategic route to China (the Karakorum Highway) in 1982 sent a training expedition to Antarctica to train under “Siachen Glacier Like” conditions. Then in April 1984, it conducted its Operation Meghdoot’, and invaded Pakistani territory.
Since the Glacier is not physically connected to India (there is no natural ground routes connecting India and Siachen Glacier), therefore, it used its air force to drop all of its forces at Siachen. And still to this day uses helicopters and aircrafts to transport supplies, food and soldiers.
On this third pole on earth, Pakistani military is confronting the Indians who have a force 5 times its size. In the process India is paying a heavy price. According to a book on the War at Siachen Glacier, 50% of Indian soldiers, who make back alive, suffer from permanent mental retardation, not to mention amputations and other terrible things that Indian soldiers have to go through.
The war has been going on for about quarter of a century. Though the price has been heavy for both sides (especially for India), Pakistan has been slowly driving the Indians out of Siachen Glacier.
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