Changing Planet

Siachen Glacier Tragedy: An Opportunity for Peace?

The death of over a hundred Pakistani soldiers due to an avalanche on April 7 has brought forth the forgotten frozen frontiers of Siachen in the news cycle. This is the world’s highest battlefield where more die of hypothermia than of battle wounds and yet no end is in sight for this senseless conflict. Seven years ago, I wrote an article for India’s Sanctuary Asia magazine on how to quell this conflict using ecological approaches. This was a very practical solution modeled after the Antarctic treaty, which erstwhile adversaries such as the United States and the Soviet Union signed at the height of the Cold War. As the world’s longest non-polar glacier, Siachen has particular importance for science and since this region is not habitable by humans, there is little value in terms of useful real-estate. In the age of military drones and cyber warfare, coupled with a massive nuclear deterrent, the strategic value of Siachen is also very limited. This is the most hostile border to cross and is clearly not on the priority list for terrorist infiltration! Contrary to popular opinion in both India and Pakistan, incursions such as the Kargil episode also have no connection to strategic advantage over Siachen. Even if troop deployments now extend across the full range, such deployments are malleable and the cooperative monitoring system proposed in various peace plans could easily assuage concerns of security on both sides.


The World's Highest Battleground: Photo by Dhritiman Mukherjee, Courtesy Sanctuary Asia


Yet despite all these very pragmatic reasons provided, the resolution to the Siachen dispute has still eluded us. I had many high hopes for a distinguished Prime Minister (PM) like Manmohan Singh to work practically to resolve this particular dispute. Four months after my article was published, the Prime Minister actually visited Siachen (the first such visit by an Indian PM). His speech there on June 12, 2005 was very heartening as he noted: “nobody fears any threat, there is no scope for any conflict and this place becomes an example of peaceful environment… How long shall we allow such conditions to prevail (in Siachen)? Now the time has come for us to make efforts to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain.”

Science For Peace
Sadly these words have not been acted upon and the blame games continue from both sides of the border. Since the glacier is physically under Indian control,  leadership in resolving this dispute will have to come from India. The idea of a ‘science for peace’ effort has also received wide ranging strategic study by eminent personalities in the military establishment in India, including Retd. Air Marshall Nanda Cariappa and Retd. Brigadier General Gurmeet Kanwal (current director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies). The United States Sandia National Labs’ Cooperative Monitoring Center sponsored two rounds of joint strategy papers on Siachen conflict resolution which were coauthored with Pakistani counterparts. In these documents as well the prospects for territorial resolution of this conflict through the establishment of science for peace initiative were positively discussed. A law student at Georgetown University at the time, Neal Kemkar, soon thereafter even authored a detailed paper laying out the legal mechanisms by which such a peace park could operate and the paper was published in the Stanford Environmental Law Review. All the groundwork for such a resolution is already in place.

Time To Take Action Now

Technology now exists for monitoring any potential violations of treaties and accords signed to resolve this dispute through remote sensing and so having troops physically on the ground is also utterly unnecessary. The only people who would genuinely like to visit Siachen are environmental scientists and mountaineers. Creating a zone of visitation from both sides of the border to the Siachen region for scientists and mountaineers and equally sharing any economic revenues from such activity would be a means of operationalizing the resolution of the conflict. Similar to the Antarctic treaty, neither side would relinquish their claims of sovereignty to the area but would place all such claims in abeyance for the higher purpose of science.

In this time of great ecological stress in the Himalayas with epic floods within the past two years, there is a golden opportunity for the outgoing Prime Minister to  make his mark with a valedictory gesture of true leadership, harkening back to his historic visit to the glacier. This is not just a pie in the sky idea – it is a tangible and  realizable goal for pragmatic peace that must move forward independently of other agenda items on the Indo-Pak list of grievances. The political heat for moving forward on Siachen peace will be momentary and the outcome of planetary value for generations to come. President Zardari made a visit to India on April 8 (a day after the avalanche) to pay homage to a sufi saint and also met with Prime Minister Singh. Let’s hope that both civilian leaders and their respective military establishments show political courage to move forward on conflict resolution on the glacier so that the lives of soldiers in Siachen are not lost in vain.

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
  • […] Hundreds of troops, plus sniffer dogs and helicopters are involved in the rescue operation …Siachen Glacier Tragedy: Appeal to Singh and ZardariNational GeographicAvalanche buries 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians |Reuters135 People […]

  • […] An avalanche on the glacier April 7 …Search for avalanche survivors in KashmirBBC NewsSiachen Glacier Tragedy: Appeal to Singh and ZardariNational GeographicAvalanche buries 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians |ReutersVoice of […]

  • […] wars between archrivals Pakistan and India. But instead of dying in battle, 117 Pakistani …Siachen Glacier Tragedy: Appeal to Singh and ZardariNational GeographicSiachen avalanche traps 124 soldiers, 11 othersDAWN.comSearch for avalanche […]

  • […] stationed near …Avalanche buries Pakistan base; 117 soldiers feared deadChicago TribuneSiachen Glacier Tragedy: Appeal to Singh and ZardariNational GeographicSearch for avalanche survivors in KashmirBBC NewsJamestown Sun -NDTVall […]

  • […] in Pak's SiachenFirstpostAvalanche buries Pakistan base; 117 soldiers feared deadChicago TribuneSiachen Glacier Tragedy: Appeal to Singh and ZardariNational -BBC Newsall 1,370 news […]

  • […] it has gotten nowhere. With yesterday’s tragedy, calls to demilitarize Siachen are getting stronger with NatGeo pitching in […]

  • abdulsultan H Karim

    The corrupt political set up in politics and boots on both the sides who are making money, in supplies, at cost of soldiers’ lives are the root cause of this foolish theatre. In Kargil Conflict politicians made money in coffins.

  • faisal mansoor soofi

    this tragedy may very well be our last wake up call….all the high altitude madness spread around the snow leopard habitat must end NOW !! WE all must listen to the “SONG” for Pakistan and learn to respect and preserve the environment that we are so dependent upon .

  • Indian

    IF you want peace, why don’t you Pakis withdraw your forces from the region first ? Why does it always have to be India that makes the moves and is “responsible” for taking leadership ?? Seems like a convenient Paki excuse for maintaining and perpetuating their belligerent and misplaced claim on Kashmir.

    You talk about “distinguished” Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, what about “distinguished” Paki leaders like Gen Kayani or Zardari or who is in power now ??

    India remembers Kargil and the “Distinguished” Gen. Musharaff’s brilliant idea of taking these heights. We are not about to replicate that folly by vacating Siachin that has been hard won by Indian lives and determination.

  • Amina Bukhari

    At least PK Army commander General Kayani visited the disaster site. Pakistan Commander in Chief and President Zardari decided to go drink tea in India during this tragedy for PR campaign. During floods he was in helicopter touring the French countryside wine country. This is disgrace to country. May God bless the soldiers and their families.

  • Umer Mukhtar

    Asif Ali Zardari is such a disgrace to Pakistan like the others in the regime. After this painful event he has gone out to country rather being in the country, organizing and planning the rescue – what a shame and disgrace. On the other hand promoting the shirk with his act like the others and spending money on the someone to get help who can’t help themselves – could this save Pakistan “never”.

  • kumar manglam

    My condolence to family of the victims brothers, father son lost to nature fury. tragedy can occur at sea in air but this time its glacier. you get salary to join army ,sad martyrdom but saved Indians soldiers loss.
    lets respect the brave soldier who died and let political diplomacy in ajmer sharif dargah too help find peace too.
    We are all corrupt so why blame anyone

  • V Vaid

    There is a very simple solution to the problem: Pakistan can unilaterally withdraw its troops from beyond the Saltoro Ridge (Let’s be clear here : Pakistan is nowhere near Siachen regardless of what their Army feeds their populace) to assure India of its good intentions. Then after a reasonable period ( say 10-15 years) with Pakistan steering clear of trying shortsighted adventurism a la Kargil, India may be convinced enough to take steps to start demilitarising the heights. Expecting India to unliaterally vacate the heights on good faith when the entire world (and Pakistanis themselves) have seen through Pakistan’s duplicity is the height of folly. Even the snow leopard for which the writer and his countrymen shed those crocodile tears would not countenance such stupidity. After all, who else but the big cats know best how to guard and protect your turf

  • Goraya

    As some one suggested to withdraw Pakistan Army from Siachen then why Indians try to occupy this region, to completely deprive Pakistan from the natural resources of the region as they are doing with Indus treaty and building dams on Pakistani revers according to the treaty. We Pakistanis are not afraid of death. Our scientists are capable to explore the Siachen for human and our future generations,

  • Muhammad Tariq

    It is place where more died of hypothermia than the battle wounds the deployment seems senseless

  • Tipu Yar

    This article promotes little or no bias, and promotes peace. Indeed, peace is beneficial for all 🙂
    But lets look at a few ground realities. If the war on Siachen was ever to be easily settled with a debate or discussion, India would not have spent around 30 billion Rupees on its soldiers there. If this war was meaningless, Pakistan would not have been spending so much of its money in it, despite being in economic crisis and knowing the fact that the soldiers face more harm from the weather than the enemy soldiers.
    This glacier, and Kashmir as a whole, is an extremely decisive and literally an existential factor for both countries, particularly Pakistan. You see, the five main rivers of Pakistan, which name the province “Punjab”, all come from Kashmir. This is why Muhammad Ali Jinnah called Kashmir the life line of Pakistan. If India ever gets complete hold over Kashmir, even for just a month, it can turn Pakistan’s land into a complete desert.
    Already, Pakistan shares many rivers with India, and thus it has had to make treaties with India, like the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). And we have seen how India has completely violated this treaty by building multiple dams on almost all rivers it shares with Pakistan, not to forget the Kargil dam, which is to be the 3rd largest in the world. This has already affected the waters in Pakistan tremendously. River Ravi has dried up quite considerably by now. And Pakistani rivers at this stage face more threat of floods from Indian waters than they do from heavy rains. This is because when India releases its waters in monsoon seasons, the rivers in Pakistan fill up and flood the whole area (as we have seen in the past 2 years). So if this is the case now, can we imagine what will happen to Pakistan if India can get hold of the entire Kashmir? Similarly there are many crucial stakes for India in Kashmir as well.
    Thus, we cannot call the Kashmir war, and the Siachen conflict a pointless or meaningless war. These battles are extremely decisive, and I don’t blame the Pakistani forces fighting there, after seeing the drowsy attitude from UN about the case.

  • Osama121

    It is ironic that Indians demand Pakistani troops to withdraw from Siachen while the reality is that It is Indra Gahdhi who decided to occupy Siachen.

    Since the ceasefire of 1948 war between Pakistan and India, Siachen used to be considered as a part of Pakistani Territory until 1978. After the decision of Indra Gandhi to occupy Siachen, the Indian forces secretly entered into the Siachen in 1982, developed their bases and claimed that this is their territory. Pakistan Army came to know about Indian presence in 1983, in Siachen, when they spotted Indian Army Helicopters and Indian Army troops invaded and raped Pakistani women in a village. The Indian coward forces ran away from when Pakistan Army confronted them at Bilafond La, Siachen.

    It should be Indians that should retreat from Siachen as they have no business being there instead of asking Pakistan Army to retreat.

    Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto tried to appease India by making a deal with Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan will exchange information on Sikh freedom fighters in exchange with Indian Army retreat from Siachen. Rajiv Gandhi accepted the deal and Pakistan gave information to India. BUT Rajiv Gandhi didn’t fulfilled the promise of unconditional Indian retreat from Siachen. The India killed these Sikh freedom fighters due to intelligence from Pakistan. As a result, Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government got toppled for exchanging intelligence from Indian side.

    Indians should be ashamed of what they did first by invading Siachen and then unfulfilling their promises. Now how can these big-mouthed Indians lay their claim that Siachen is their territory?? Bloody Liars!!!

  • Farhan

    if tragedies could end wars, India and Pakistan would have made peace in 1947. And if Siachen were indeed an isolated and contained battlefield, contained on the Siachen glacier – which at 22,000 feet would have it floating improbably at the height of the mountains peaks above it – it too would have been settled long ago. Far from being confined to the Siachen glacier – in fact Pakistan has no troops deployed on the glacier itself – the soldiers are spread across a wide area after fighting for control of the heights above before eventually agreeing a ceasefire in late 2003.

  • […] an effective means of conflict resolution. Specifically, he has been advocating for both sides to declare the Siachen Glacier a peace park. He is not alone. Civil society, opinion makers and academics from around the world have been […]


    The Present tragedy at Gayari Sector is a wake up call for both Pakistan and India to immediately withdraw their forces from Siachen Glacier. The first responsibility of withdrawing troops from Siachen is fixed on Indian because India initiate this problem. Every body knows that harsh weather of Siachen is equal dangerous for Pakistani and Indian troops therefore, kindly for god sake immediately decide to withdraw troops from Siachen.

  • dr.a.b.solepure.

    Friends. While political borders have separated us but we Indians and Pakistani people are one
    let us disengage from all sides and engage our armies to guard us from northern and western invaders who have victimised all of us and uprooted us culturally. Let us be one leave Jinha and Advani behind. Look at Germany and Vietnam

  • Siddarth

    Nice thoughts…
    We should emphasize more on Science and development than indulging in any war…

  • Sam

    If the Kargil incursion had no strategic interest vis-a-vis Siachen, then why did Gen. Musharraf, then Chief of the Pakistan Army, boast that he would have stinger missiles there to shoot down Indian supply planes to Siachen and that the Indian soldiers there would soon starve? Over four thousand Pakistani soldiers from their Northern Light Infantry lost their lives at Kargil, and this was the Pakistan army’s third or fourth failed attempt to wrest Siachen from the Indians. Not to forget the very first time when the Indians got wind of their plans and beat them to the glacier by all of 4 days! The bottom line is that the Pakistan army cannot be trusted, and neither can its all-weather friend just on the other side of the Karokaram pass. The moment India succumbs to the feel-good kumbaya from the well-meaning Prof. Ali, his khaki-clad countrymen will have no compunction in moving in; treaty, legal framework, designated border, line-of-control, whathaveyou, be damned. And that is a fact that I think even Prof. Ali in his heart knows, all too sadly, to be true.

  • @Sam Musharraf’s Kargil folly was followed by numerous peace gestures by him and others. Kargil is also not linked geographically or strategically to Siachen area itself (though both are on LOC but in very different terrain). This is not about kumbaya but about economic and ecological benefit for both countries.

  • Sam

    Retired Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail wrote about a meeting he was present where Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, Commander 10 Corps, stated:

    “The target was a vulnerable section of Dras-Kargil Road, whose blocking would virtually cut off the crucial life-line which carried the bulk of supplies needed for daily consumption as well as annual winter-stocking in Leh-Siachen Sector. He was very hopeful that this stratagem could choke off the Indians in the vital sector for up to a month, after which the monsoons would prevent vehicular movement (due to landslides) and, also suspend all airlift by the IAF. “Come October, we shall walk in to Siachen – to mop up the dead bodies of hundreds of Indians left hungry, out in the cold,” he succinctly summed up what appeared to be a new dimension to the Siachen dispute.”

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media