The Siachen Glacier, the world’s largest alpine icefield, is leaking the refuse of war into a water system used by more than 300 million people. Can India clean it up, or is it already too late?

Feb 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Sitting smack in the middle of the Siachen Glacier at an elevation of 16,000 feet, India’s Kumar Base is a study in exceptional beauty and extraordinary squalor. There are the mountains, scads of unclimbed peaks reaching well above 20,000 feet, and then, strewn across the surface of the largest alpine glacier on earth, there is the trash—thousands of tons of ammo and rotten food and discarded weaponry, a road map of litter chronicling 19 years of war with Pakistan at the top of the world. "How much junk is actually here?" I asked our liaison officer, Captain Somnil Das, on our first afternoon at Kumar.

"Impossible to know," he said. "A hell of a lot. Some of this stuff has been sitting out here since 1984. One thing’s for sure, though—whatever comes up here doesn’t go back."

When I got back down to the Corps Command Headquarters in Leh, I found out that the Indian army has, in fact, made an attempt to calculate the amount of garbage on the glacier, and the figures they’ve come up with are staggering. To sustain its troops, the army airdrops about 13, 000 tons of supplies onto the glacier each year. Out of this, nearly 2,200 tons are left as waste: 1,400 tons of packing materials, 330 tons of empty ammunition cases, 7.6 tons of canned food, and 55 tons of miscellaneous items, including dead batteries, discarded clothing, and used signal cables. On top of all that come the periodic kerosene spills, which can disgorge up to 1,850 gallons in a day if undetected, and 372 tons a year of human feces, which has the potential of spreading jaundice, cholera, typhoid, and amoebic dysentery into the water flowing from the glacier and into the Nubra River.

All told, that makes at least 41,000 tons of trash on the glacier. But that figure does not include the 43,000 artillery shells that India says are fired over the Saltoro Ridge onto the Siachen by the Pakistanis every year. Nor does it figure in the bodies of dead soldiers that cannot be recovered from the bottoms of crevasses and the middle of avalanche debris fields. By comparison, the South Col of Mount Everest, the most highly publicized high-altitude trash dump in the world, is polluted by only ten tons of garbage, most of it discarded oxygen cylinders.

"It is only in the last five to six years that we became seriously concerned with it," Colonel B.B. Sharma told me. "Initially we just wanted to survive. Now we are cleaning. There is awareness at every level right from the top down that we should not create waste, that waste there should be concentrated and then incinerated or brought back."

According to Colonel Sharma, who serves in an Indian engineering battalion and is working on efforts to mop up the wasteland, the plan of attack incorporates three main elements: biodegradable packing material—mostly cardboard—for food items such as juice, milk, and butter; latrines equipped with biodegraders—large drums filled with a slurry of specially engineered bacteria that can purportedly survive at minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit; and a kerosene-powered aerial cableway to be built along the length of the glacier. This 93-mile network of cable systems is expected to scale back the vastly expensive helicopter airlift, and is projected to be online within the next three years. "It will use a cable and buckets or trolleys, and the pylons could be as high as 190 feet," said Sharma. "With this in place, waste could come down as well as supplies coming up. It is a very viable project."

It sounds like quite a plan, if one with Rube Goldbergian potential. But the military rhetoric glosses over how hard it is to reverse environmental damage in such an extreme environment. Recent reports from the Indian Defense Research Organization, where the cold-resistant bacteria was designed, suggest that the biodegrader program may not be as effective as Sharma suggests. Even more disturbing is the fact that a huge amount of trash has already been encased in the glacier and is very slowly being carried "downstream" by this frozen river of ice. "Sometimes people think that material that’s buried in glaciers just disappears into the ice," says Martin Truffer, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, who specializes in glacial dynamics. "That’s just not the case. It will all come back out. Even the stuff that’s out of sight will eventually come out and interact with the meltwater at the snout of the glacier."

According to Truffer, a glacier the size of the Siachen is moving downstream at rate of about 200 feet a year. Like many of the world’s glaciers, it’s also currently shrinking—in this case by about 310 feet a year. Crunch the numbers and the trash at Kumar may take as long as 600 years to reach the snout, where it will drop into the meltwaters of the Nubra River and then make its way to the Shyok, a tributary of the Indus River, which sustains some 300-million people Pakistan and northwestern India.

So why worry now? Because the wastes from the army’s lower camps are already leaching into those rivers and have begun to pollute the upper reaches of the watershed. "If I was living downstream of that glacier, I would certainly worry," says Truffer. "The human waste, the kerosene oil, the chemicals from the artillery shells—potentially, this could contaminate things for hundreds of years."

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