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The environmental crisis in Kashmir

The Kashmir region and its adjoining areas, in India and Pakistan, is mired in political strife but there is a greater crisis afoot – climate change, pollution, and melting glaciers.

The Dal lake in Srinagar, Kashmir (in India) is under tremendous stress.

The Kashmir region, one part in India, and the other controlled by Pakistan, has been consistently a bone of contention between the two nuclear-armed neighbours since the partition of British India in 1947. The security debate in the study of the international relations of Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan on Pakistani side) rarely – if ever - takes into account the environmental security into consideration.

But the political handwringing has drowned a crisis that needs urgent attention – there is an environmental crisis in the region. A recent pioneering study found that 1,200 glaciers in the region melted around 35 centimetres each year between the years 2000-12.

Using satellite data from the American space agency NASA and DLR, the German space agency, across Kashmir, both sides of the border, and neighbouring Ladakh, the study analysed more than 12,000 glaciers.

The results of this study are supported by work done by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) which warns that global warming due to carbon emissions will cause a rise in temperatures by five degrees (despite the commitments made in The Paris Agreement), and this shall have a dramatic impact on what is known as the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region spread across India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan. Myanmar and China and which contains the two tallest mountains in the world, Mount Everest, and K2.

This region, and its glaciers, hold the source key of the water supply of nearly two billion people across South Asia, and feed ten of the most important rivers in the world.

In Indian Kashmir, its two major lakes have been shrinking rapidly. According to the region’s Directorate of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing, the Dal Lake, one of the most famous lakes in the world, have dried up or has been encroached upon reducing its size to around 40 per cent of its original size. It suffers from terrible pollution, not least from nearly one thousand houseboats discharging human waste into its waters every day. It is choked not only by weed water hyacinth but also construction that continues to slide away its area, bit by bit. Untreated sewage from across the city of Srinagar continues to flow to it. A new proposal is afoot to declare it an eco-sensitive zone, thus applying appropriate regulations.

The Wular Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, has shrunk from 272 square kilometres to72 square kilometres, with only 24 square kilometres of open water. The causes are the same – encroachment, sewage, excreta, rampant illegal encroachment, and building.

Up the mountains from Srinagar, in the scenic heights of Sonmarg, Gulmarg, and Pahalgam, the burden of deforestation, excessive construction of tourist hubs including hotels and other amenities are destroying some of the most pristine landscapes in the subcontinent. As these areas get ‘discovered’ by more and more tourists and other business concerns as ripe for exploitation, the stress on their natural habitat has grown exponentially. With little provision for waste disposal, it is the famed rivers of Kashmir that are at risk as some of the cleanest and prettiest regions turn to concrete jungles.

In 2015, Kashmir University’s Centre for Research and Development pointed out that the development that was accounted for till 2025 had already taken place in the Sonmarg region 10 years ahead of schedule. Whether it is the Sindh river, or the Lidder river in Pahalgam, pollution threatens the existence of some of the most valuable natural resources of the region.

Deforestation and climate change is a major concern across the border on the Pakistani side too where fresh water sources and glacier melting have become critical issues threatening the future of the region. Due to the lack of regular power supply, by some estimates around 170,000 trees are cut in the Gilgit Baltistan area every year.

The area remains one of the poorest in Pakistan and is hosting a major chunk of China’s Belt and Road project, called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through it. But for all the promise of future economic growth, the cost being paid today in environmental terms increasingly seems unsustainable.

In recent years, the region has seen tremendous flooding from what are called glacial lake outburst flooding which is caused by unprecedented melting of glaciers. In the last three years, the Karakoram Highway, the main road that connects Pakistan and China, has already been shut twice due to such flooding. If rampant construction continues in the region, it is impossible to say what the future holds for its environmental sustainability and water supply.

On both sides of the border, environmental fragility is perhaps at its most vulnerable level with the debate always focused only on militaristic maneuvers. But all signs suggest that environmental concerns could well surpass as problems India and Pakistan has ever had on Kashmir.

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