ICE Case Studies
Number 231, December 2010

Conflict on the Siachen Glacier

Ashley L. McArthur

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Environment - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract:

The ongoing militarization of the Siachen Glacier in northern Kashmir, at nearly 6,000 meters above sea level, has earned the nickname "the world's highest battlefield" ( Longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan is largely centered on the disputed territory of Kashmir, through which a permanent border has been extremely difficult to establish, particularly in the northernmost region where the Glacier stands (Wirsing 2010).

Aside from existing political and military tentions, rising temperatures due to global climate change continue to change the landscape. As glacial melt leads to fluctuating river flow and downstream water scarcity, the shifting of already ambiguous borders, and the uncovering of newly accessible materials like oil and minerals, the international community eyes the region with deep concern. Could these new factors in an already heated conflict raise the stakes enough to push these two nuclear-armed states to all-out war?

2. Description:

Siachen Glacier has been militarized by both India and Pakistan since 1984 as a result of the countries' conflicting claims over Kashmir, and inadequate attention to achieving a permanent border in the regions' northernmost reaches. The historical roots of the conflict go back much further into the shared past of India and Pakistan, and have far-reaching implications for the future of the region .

Historical Context: Ongoing Conflict between India and Pakistan

The longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan has deep historical roots, dating back thousands of years through periods of military conquest, widespread religious conversion, and political turmoil.  The arrival of Islam and British occupation have continuously divided Pakistan and India, and generations of mutual distrust and fear have amounted to “the world’s most dangerous match for the potential ignition of a nuclear war" (Wolpert 2010). 

The most constant point of contention in this ongoing rivalry is over who has the right to claim Jammu and Kashmir, a matter largely overlooked when the two states were partitioned in 1947.  In that year, the British abruptly withdrew from India, leaving India and Pakistan independent but divided by hastily conceived and unsustainable borders. Since then, three wars and countless hours of political and military struggle have failed to settle conflicting claims to Jammu and Kashmir, a region which was only grown in significance to both parties since demarcation.

Ambiguity Surrounding Siachen Glacier

The 1948 Karachi ceasefire agreement also failed to delineate a complete border, specifying only that it would continue "thence north to the glaciers," assuming that neither party would feel strongly about claiming such an inhospitable region (Circle of Blue 2010). However, the ambiguity left room for both parties to claim strong ties to the region. Salient issues in the debate have included national and religious identity, historical precedent, power and military superiority, fair allocation of local resources, and the importance – or unimportance – of self-determination for the Kashmiri people.

Later in 1972, the signing of the Simla Agreement committed both India and Pakistan to peaceful negotiations as the default process for settling disputes. The Agreement changed the status of the UN Cease-fire line to the "Line of Control" dividing India and Pakistan's claims to Jammu and Kashmir. The text still did not settle the matter of Siachen, conspicuously overlooking the matter.

Militarization of the Siachen Glacier

The conflicting claims to the Siachen glacier, and the failure of negotiations to settle the dispute, led to its militarization in 1984, where both India and Pakistan have since stationed troops ( Since the 2003 cease-fire, the region has remained militarized, although no combat takes place to this day. Soldiers willing to risk death and endure the bitter climate, frequently reaching temperatures 40°C below zero, allegedly do so in hopes of advancing their military careers (

3. Duration:

Begin Date: The region became militarized in 1984.

End Date: The most recent cease-fire was issued on November 26th, 2003.

Duration: approximately 19 years.

Note: The region is still militarized. Despite the cease-fire, approximately 200 soldiers have since perished due to the extreme conditions, including temperatures far below freezing, untreated frostbite, and the presence of deadly crevices.

4. Location:

Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Countries: India and Pakistan

The Siachen Glacier occupies the northernmost reaches of Jammu and Kashmir, the disputed territory between northern India and Pakistan. India regards Kashmir as part of its domain, and Pakistan refers to Kashmir as "India-occuped Kashmir" (Daily News). The Glacier is part of the Karakorum mountain range, on the western edge of the Himalayan mountains along northern India. As shown below (blue arrows) melting waters from Siachen glacier feed several tributaries to the Indus River, upon which Indian and Pakistani people depend for agricultural, industrial, and domestic water needs (Circle of Blue).

Fig. 1. Note: Adapted from GoogleEarth.

5. Actors:

Sovereign Actors: India and Pakistan are the primary actors in the dispute, as mentioned above.

China has been tangentially involved as well. Ties between China and Pakistan have troubled India, which has had its own border disputes with China, such as that over Aksai Chin, another northern region (BBCNews). Relations between China and India have normalized to some degree in recent decades.

Non-sovereign Actors: Additionally, international bodies such as the World Bank have been involved in fostering better relations between India and Pakistan. The World Bank brokered the 1970 Indus Waters Treaty, which has since governed collaborative management of waters in the disputed Kashmir region, and is the only longstanding Agreement to survive war, ongoing conflict, and political tension (Wolpert 2010).

Not least of all, the Kashmiri people have grown disillusioned with, and aliented from, both self-proclaimed motherlands.   Both India and Pakistan have largely overlooked the Kashmiri people's longing for independence, and the alleged emergence of militant young Kashmiris with terrorist leanings have the international community very concerned.

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem:

Climate Change, Water Pollution, Health, Others.

Population-Induced Water Scarcity

Aside from purely societal and political discussions, water has long occupied the top of the agenda in the ongoing dispute over Kashmir. Pakistan has repeatedly expressed fear that India would – or simply could – manipulate the flow of water from the Indian Himalayas into Pakistan, either as a method of blanket destruction or as a coercive strategy, or bargaining chip, in times of heightened tension.  Such a measure would indisputably cripple Pakistan, which relies heavily on agriculture for economic stability as well as simple survival.  Persistent drought and periodic flooding have already caused massive hardship for Pakistan, and the ongoing lack of palatable freshwater is piquing her citizens’ sense of victimization by more powerful India.

The 1960 Indus Water Treaty forbids the consumptive use of water on rivers shared with Pakistan. Yet India has pointed to explosive population growth and mounting water stress as justification for the utilization of water resources accessible to her – which originate, after all, within her borders.  The population-driven spike in water and energy demands have inspired a series of development projects aimed at generating hydroelectricity for northern India. As of November 2010, India had 33 damming projects in the early planning and consideration stages, sited to be built on the Indus River and some of its tributaries, which are granted to Pakistan and to which India has only limited water storage rights – rights which are arguably exceeded by the scale of the plans (Circle of Blue 2010).

According to Indian officials and researchers, new hydroelectric operations are nonconsumptive and do not inhibit the flow of water into Pakistan. Understandably, Pakistan is still deeply concerned for its already struggling agrarian society, and eager to find a solution. As water scarcity continues to plague communities on either side of the India-Pakistan conflict, the allegations persist, adding fuel to an already firey debate.

Climate-Induced Glacial Melting and Water Scarcity

India has pointed to rapid glacial melting and increasing temperatures as a major culprit of increasing water scarcity. Climate change is upsetting the ecological balance in two particular ways. In the short-term, increasing temperatures are causing early seasonal melting, leading to an influx of glacial melt during monsoon season when it is not needed (and causing occasional flooding), and leaving little glacial melt for the dry season. In the longer-term, rising temperatures are causing glacial retreat to outpace new snowpack, leading to a net decrease in glacial ice (IPCC 2007). The Siachen Glacier is among the most critical glaciers for the Indus River upon which both Pakistan and India depend.

Aside from the impact on water availability, glacial melting leads to the unpredictable shifting of an already contentious border. As the ice retreats, some speculation exists that minerals and other resources could become accessible within the Siachen Glacier and surrounding landscape ( 2008). Some discussion of joint oil speculation between India and Pakistan has emerged, and whether that conversation continues in a peaceful manner, or simply raises the stakes in the existing dispute over Kashmir, remains to be seen.

Rising temperatures also have the negative impact of increased evapotranspiration. That is, as water travels downstream, more water evaporates due to higher than normal temperatures, leaving less water available for downstream agrarian communities.

Militarization and Industrial Pollution

Compounding the problem of retreating glaciers is the ongoing military presence of the Indian army and Pakistani militia. Massive infrastructure and runoff of chemicals linked to military activity have degraded the glacier. Some researchers - particularly on the Pakistani side - have posited that the rapid decline of the glacier is driven more by militarization than rising temperatures ( 2008).

Additionally, the military presence has led to erosion and the deposit of rock and minerals into the water supply fed by the Siachen Glacier, compromising water quality for Kashmiris and Pakistanis. This reduction in water quality has several negative implications for the health of urban and rural populations in Pakistan, which leads to an exasperating scarcity of potable water for domestic use.

7. Type of Habitat:

Polar: Siachen Glacier exhibits a landscape characteristic of the Himalayas, which have been dubbed the "Third Pole" due to their comparability to the Arctic and Antarctic regions (Circle of Blue).

8. Act and Harm Sites:

The Siachen Conflict is spatially limited at first glance, however it is quite far-reaching.

Act Site: Insofar as climate change is attributed to the abuse of the "atmospheric commons," the Act site contributing to glacial melt in the Himalayas and the Siachen Glacier includes the entire planet. However, the militarization is limited to the Glacier itself. Pakistan would argue that the effects are compounded by dams erected throughout Kashmir on various tributaries feeding into the Indus River and into Pakistan.

Harm Site: Pakistan's agricultural sector and food security are at immediate risk. The Kashmiri people also must endure the constant military presence of both Pakistani and Indian troops in the northern part of the region, and they arguably stand to lose the most if the conflict expands. Additionally, chemical runoff and pollution of river water reduces the quality of water Kashmiris, Pakistanis, and northern Indians have at their disposal for domestic use.

Should downstream water quantity and quality reduce enough to provoke migration northward into Kashmir - particularly as termperatures rise and Kashmir becomes more hospitable and therefore more attractive to India and Pakistan - Kashmiris may see an influx of Indians and Pakistanis onto their homelands (See Fig. 1, green arrows). Such a trend is already emerging in China as it overtly incentivizes movement of Han Chinese into Tibet. The two parties to the Kashmir dispute could conceivably employ the same strategy as a means of laying further claim to Kashmir.

Lastly, members of the international community who are wary of India and Pakistan's nuclear capabilities could argue that Siachen Glacier is a flashpoint for nuclear conflict, which certainly would have far-reaching implications for Asia and possibly the planet as a whole.

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict:

International. India and Pakistan have been independent countries since 1947; the conflict between them is considered international.

Internal and External: The Siachen Conflict is both internal and external, insofar as (1) Siachen Glacier is part of disputed territory, so both India and Pakistan are in some sense both within and beyond their own boundaries; and (2) While the conflict is raging between India and Pakistan, it also has attracted the involvement of outside parties seeking to promote more peaceful relations, including the World Bank, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the United States. The international community regards the region with suspicion, as reports of terrorist sentiment brewing among the younger generation continue to surface

10. Level of Conflict:

Resource Access, Human-Caused Environmental Changes, Preparation for Conflict, Military Conflict, Political, Infrastructure, Border. The conflict is quite clearly multi-faceted, making it one of the most protracted and volatile conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite the fact that military engagement is infrequent, maintaining a presence at the glacier has costed India $435 million annually, and Pakistan $183 million annually (Time 2005).

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities):

Military fatalities: Direct - low. Both countries are resistant to revealing their total casualties, but total fatalities due to military combat are low overall. Indirect - low. Total fatalities caused by the hostile environment of the Glacier, where military bases are sited, are still quite moderate, at only 200 since the ceasefire and between 2,000 and 4,000 over the total 25-year span of the conflict (Time 2005).

Civilian fatalities: Direct - low. The Siachen Conflict has not resulted in direct civilian casualties, but it could if armed conflict eventually expands beyond the Siachen Glacier into India, Pakistan, or Kashmir. Indirect - medium to high. The eventual outcome could potentially include a significant number of civilian casualties if water shortages and pollution are continually exacerbated by the conflict there.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:


Fig 2. Causal Diagram demonstrating role of environment in conflict.

Environmental factors due to climate change and human development are expected to have a significant impact on the existing conflict at Siachen Glacier and the surrounding area. As the graph indicates, global temperature increase is causing rapid glacial melting in the Himalayas, including the Siachen Glacier. This in itself is generating uncertainty among Pakistanis and Indians regarding the future availability of water resources, which will only increase the desirability of control over the glacier and exacerbate the existing conflict there. Increased military activity will lead to more chemical and mechanical pollution and degradation to the glacier, which creates a feedback effect speeding the rate of glacial melting.

Additionally, as the melting reveals new points of access to the region, ventures to tap into minerals and other resources there will likely emerge, as will migration into the increasingly hospitable region of southern Jammu and Kashmir. This renewed interest in Kashmir and the glaciers in its northern half will also raise the stakes and provide incentive to India and Pakistan to gain control over the area.

The impact of the Indus Water Treaty, and the relative peace that has characterized water management in Kashmir until recently, proves the potential benefit of agreement-seeking processes even in spite of ongoing military preparation. Several sovereign and non-sovereign entities have promoted peacebuilding exercises between India and Kashmir, which have the potential to change the trajectory toward addressing future water scarcity constructively and cooperatively, while also providing a space for rebuilding trust and reinitiating dialogue over how to resolve other differences.

13. Level of Strategic Interest:

Regional to Global. Given the presence of nuclear weaponry, the involvement of the UN, and the attempts by the U.S. to nudge the active parties to resolution, this conflict has potentially global implications. However a more conservative estimation of scope would be Regional. While the most active participants are indisputably India and Pakistan, both of which face military engagement and severe water and energy deficits in the future, the environmental implications could reach much further in terms of water pollution and availability, and claims made to the Himalayan range.

14. Outcome of Dispute:

Current Outcome: Stalemate. Permanent military stations have occupied the Glacier since 1984, with Indian and Pakistani troops facing off across the icey chasms and engaging occasionally in conflict. A cease-fire established in 2003 has since minimized overt military activity, however neither side has withdrawn. It has been reported that casualties due to the hostile landscape and deathly cold have far outnumbered those due to armed conflict.

Future Outcome: Unknown. The spectre of nuclear war has long occupied the international community's observance of the India-Pakistan conflict - and presumably the minds of Indians, Pakistanis, and Kashmiris - perhaps simultaneously heightening the tension and deterring both parties from firing the first shots. As such, the deadlock could continue. However, increasing impacts of climate change and population growth suggest that the stakes will climb continually higher, resulting in higher tensions and incentive to "settle" the matter once and for all, whether through negotiations or through open conflict. A breach in the ceasefire could either be disastrous, or it could illuminate the necessity of negotiating to prevent war.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases:

Kashmir: Melting Glaciers, Boiling Conflict by Samantha Hulkower

Chinese Damming of Mekong and Negative Repurcussions for Tonle Sap by Nargiza Salidjanova


16. Relevant Websites and Literature:

Agal, Renu. "On the World's Highest Battlefield." BBC News. 13 Nov 2006. Accessed 25 Nov 2010.

Easen, Nick. "Siachen: The World's Highest War." CNN News. 17 Nov 2003. Accessed at on 18 Nov 2010.

Ghosh, Develeena, Heather Goodall, and Stephanie Donald (eds).  Water, Sovereignty and Borders in Asia and Oceania. London: Routledge, 2009. 

Hamid, Waheed. "Melting Ice of Siachen Glacier." Daily Times. 2 January 2010. Accessed 17 Nov 2010.

Ishfaq-ul-Hassan. "India, Pakistan to Explore Oil Jointly." Daily News and Analysis ( 22 Feb 2008. Accessed 13 Nov 2010.

McGirk, Tim. "War at the Top of the World." Time Magazine. 4 May 2005. Accessed at 18 Nov 2010.

National Institute of Hydrology, India.

"Operation Meghdoot," 2005. Accessed on 19 Nov 2010.

Orlove, Ben, Ellen Wiegandt, and Brian H. Luckman (eds).  Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science and Society.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 

Schneider, Keith and C.T. Pope, "Pakistan and India in Dam Building Race: Interpreting the Indus Water Treaty." Circle of Blue. 30 Nov 2010. Accessed at Circle of Blue WaterNews on 31 Nov 2010.

Shah, Semil, Sarath Guttikunda, and Ramesh P. Singh. "Himalayan glacier melt threatens regional stability. Can India Help?" CS Monitor. 22 Oct 2010. Accessed 5 Dec 2010.

Singh, Jyotsna. "Talks Over Siachen End in Failure" BBC News. 24 May 2006. Accessed 25 Nov 2010.

“South Asia,” IPCC Report, Climate Change 2007; Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis,, Stanley. India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

The World Factbook, 2010. “Country Profile: India.”  Central Intelligence Agency.  Accessed on 1 Dec 2010.

The World Factbook, 2010.  “Country Profile: Pakistan.” Central Intelligence Agency.   Accessed on 1 Dec 2010.


Last Updated: Monday, December 13, 2010 by A. McArthur.