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EFSAS Commentary

Jammu & Kashmir's ecology; Threatened and neglected


An article published on 22 May 2018, by Al Jazeera, the state-funded broadcaster from Qatar, mentioned that the livelihood of the people of the Ladakh region in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir is being threatened by melting glaciers of the Himalaya. Although a good attempt to highlight environmental issues in the region, the article would have been more comprehensive, had it also included other environmental challenges in the rest of Jammu & Kashmir, and not only those in Ladakh. Sheltering a rich repository of biodiversity, Jammu & Kashmir’s whole region, blessed with ecological wealth, presently stands highly threatened owing to the ongoing conflict between India, Pakistan and China.

The State of Jammu & Kashmir has experienced three wars since 1947 and has been in a ‘war-like’ situation for close to three decades. On both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), people of Jammu & Kashmir face the threat or have suffered, from natural disasters due to interference in and disruption of the region’s ecology; Deployment of Pakistani and Indian military troops, terrorism, and more recently, the construction of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Gilgit Baltistan, are some examples in this regard.

Not only the melting of glaciers, but deforestation, damage brought to the ecology of water and loss of flora and fauna diversity leading to the reduction in produce of agricultural land, have also adversely impacted the environment in this region.

Both Indian and Pakistani Administered Jammu & Kashmir have a total forest area of 54,470 sq miles. Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir has 46,660 sq miles and Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir has 7,810 sq miles respectively. Forests have played an important role in the economy of the state as various independent industries have emerged from it; Eco-tourism, turpentine and resin industry, Kashmir Willow industry, joinery, ply and other wood-based industries and pharmaceuticals. Not long ago, Jammu & Kashmir had the credit of being one of the thickly forested areas of the world, but the ongoing armed conflict, terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies by the state apparatus have had devastating effects on not only forests, but also its wildlife. Timber-smuggling and timber mafia, though not new phenomena, witnessed a spurt from 1989 when terrorism started in the Valley of Kashmir, owing to disturbance of law and order and the inability of the law enforcement agencies to effectively deal with smugglers because of great danger in and around forests. Since then, more than 59 sq miles of forest in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir has been lost.

Jammu & Kashmir possesses one of the highest number of glaciers outside the polar regions amounting to 60% of the Indian Himalayas and 13% of its geographical area. There are more than 5,000 glaciers and 2,500 glacial lakes in Gilgit Baltistan (Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir), with a potential of generating power of 52,000 MW. Furthermore, Gilgit Baltistan is home to three of the seven world’s largest glaciers, which are important sources of water for rivers in Pakistan. Independent studies reveal that glaciers in the Great Himalayan ranges of Jammu & Kashmir are generally receding with a glacial volume change between 3.6% to 97% and degradation from 17% to 25%.

International observers have raised questions regarding the legality of the proposed construction of the CPEC with regard to the Jammu & Kashmir issue, yet the negative environmental effects in Gilgit Baltistan where the corridor passes through, have not been addressed adequately. It is estimated that once trade starts, 700 trucks will pass through Khunjerab Pass, which is ecological sensitive, and produce more 36,5 million tons of Co2 emissions. According to analysts, the exploitation of water and other resources in the region, resulting in vulnerable ecological consequences and adverse contributions towards climate-change, cannot justify CPEC's possible projected economic monetary benefits, as the construction will only exacerbate the melting of already vulnerable glaciers and will inevitably have repercussions for the local people in terms of agriculture, food, security and overall livelihood.

Geologists have noted that erosion and weathering processes, seismic activity, steep terrain, snowmelt, rainfall and sediments carried by glacial melt into rivers have been the key triggers of the landslide in 2010, which created the Attabad Lake in Hunza area in Gilgit Baltistan. The landside swept away hundreds of villages in Gilgit Baltistan submerging into the Hunza River, killing more than 20 people and leaving over 6,000 displaced. In April 2012, an avalanche hit a Pakistani military base in Siachen and buried 135 men, mostly soldiers. In 2014, more than 500 people died in Indian and Pakistani Administered Jammu & Kashmir because of floods and landslides caused by heavy monsoon falls.

The last example clearly illustrates how nature takes its toll once being mistreated. As Nathaniel Hillyer Egleston, one of the founders of the American Forestry Association and chief of the US Forest Service, has argued more than 130 years ago,

“Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath”.

The ecological and human costs of the Jammu & Kashmir conflict are too immense and ominous to be ignored. All natural resources are essential for the continuance and sustainability of life and as such, are the collective inheritance of humankind. Therefore, it is a matter of dire urgency to halt terrorism, growing radicalization and find a solution to the military warfare, which take a heavy toll, not only on the socio-economic and political stability of the region, but also on its biodiversity, which remains an underestimated and underreported facet of the instability in the region. The Governments of India and Pakistan share responsibility in overseeing whether their armies comply – both in peacetime and in wartime - with international standards fashioned to protect natural resources and wildlife, while also promoting the adoption of more elaborate measures regarding preventing the environmental consequences resulting from ongoing terrorism in the region. The manipulation of the environment for hostile, strategic and economic purposes – as with the CPEC - must be prohibited. Realistically, a long-term sustainable solution could stem only from the cessation of conflict, when both countries along with China will start acknowledging that damage to the environment will not be contained only to the territory of the adversarial force, but will spill-over, endangering the future of coming generations.

Human beings do not live in a vacuum, our world is knitted of infinite dimensions, which are deeply interconnected; the very same mentality that leads to the despoliation of the resources of the natural world, will eventually lead to the destruction of mankind. Raising awareness and fostering public discourse on the environmental impact of warfare and terrorism might appear as small steps, yet the ripple effects of such steps could be astounding once done collectively.