Syed Iqbal Hasnain: China’s high-stake poker game in Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous area that is part of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, will have disastrous environmental consequences for the entire South Asia region and beyond. Reports in the local and international media indicate that, over the past few years, Beijing has been steadily undertaking many infrastructure projects in that ecologically fragile region.
Details of mostof these works, some of them supervised by the People’s Liberation Army, remain sketchy, as both the Pakistani and Chinese sides are wary of disclosing information, presumably fearing local and international opposition.
Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly known as the Northern Areas, was part of the pre-Independence Jammu and Kashmir princely state ruled by the Dogras. While Islamabad considers it separate from Kashmir, New Delhi sees the region—which is roughly a third of the size of Jammu and Kashmir—partof the dispute and it deems any Chinese activity there unacceptable. There is also a vibrant homegrown movement within Gilgit-Baltistan that is demanding more autonomy, and even independence from Pakistan.
Among the few projects that China and Pakistan have publicly disclosed is the building of a 7,000 megawatt dam, which was announced in September 2009. China is also reportedly financing and supplying skilled labor to build the controversial Diamer-Bhashadam, which is set to destroy tens of thousands ancient rock carvings and other priceless archaeological artifacts.
Five years ago, the two sides had agreed to expand the width of the historic Karakoram Highway, which connects Gilgit-Baltistan with the neighboring Xinjiang region in China, from 10 meters to 30 meters and treble its transportation capacity. The official Chinese agency Xinhua reported at the time that the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation would be in charge of the designing and reconstruction of the highway.
According to various reports, other projects China has undertaken in Gilgit-Baltistan include construction of roads, and building of a high-speed rail system and nearly two-dozen tunnels. It is also said to be involved in mineral exploratory activities. Satellite imageries reveal sporadic construction activities throughout the region.
A major reason behind these costly investment projects is commerce. Beijing has already built a port in Gwadar, in southwestern Pakistan, for the purpose of transporting oil and gas from the Gulf and Africa through Xinjiang. The expansion of the Karakoram Highway could help cut down the time it takes to transport these resources from Gwadar to Xinjiang. China could also send its cheap manufacturing goods to the affluent Gulf market in express time.
Writing in TheNew York Times last August, U.S. scholar and journalist Selig Harrison described the economic rationale for the increased Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. “It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf,” he wrote. “When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.”
For China, with its global ambitions, the geopolitical importance of gaining access to an Arabian Sea port close to the Straits of Hormuz can never be overstated. Of course, there is also another strong, unstated, but highly apparent objective: weakening India’s position on Kashmir and in the region.
Whatever maybe their motive, the Chinese construction activities in the area have huge environmental implications for the whole of south and southeast Asia. Gilgit-Baltistan is on the western edge of the Karakorum Mountains, which is critical to water and food security of a large share of Pakistan’s population. The area has more than 50 peaks that tower above 7,000 meters, including Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest peak in the world, and countless glaciers, among them, Baltoro, Baturaand Biafo, three of the longest glaciers outside of the polar region.
Construction of mega dams and building of roads and tunnels is an invitation to disaster. They are likely to lead to increased seismic activities and intensify the glacial melt, the two phenomena that are already occurring in the region.
In 2005, an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.6 had killed as many as 86,000 people in the Pakistani-occupied Kashmir to the south of Gilgit-Baltistan. The new dams will make such earthquakes more probable, as the still water induces increased seismic activities. One can only shudder at the thought of what an earthquake similar to the 2005 one could do the dams and the potential damage it could cause in the entire region.
The construction of mega dams in Gilgit-Baltistan is also unwise move for another reason. The source of all the water in the region’s rivers and rivulets is now and glaciers melt. As the melt is dependent on temperature, there is constant fluctuation in water-level. There is a danger that, when a glacier lake bursts out due to excessive glacier melt or seismic activity, dam water could be over-tapped. When that happens, usually a huge flood wave is generated, resulting in large amount of debris and sediments getting deposited in the dam, which threatens its long-term stability.
The widening of Karakoram Highway and construction of tunnels will, no doubt, intensify the glacial melting and endanger the infrastructure of the region.The de-glaciation rate is already high in the western Himalayas because of the presence of black carbon, a result of increased human activities, including heavy movement of military.(Black carbon is seen as the second leading contributor to the climate change.)
Then there are other human costs. According to reports, Diamer-Bhasha, whose proposed height is more than 250 meters, will displace tens of thousands of people and submerge habitable areas and thousands of acres of agricultural land. Another tragic consequence of this gargantuan project is the loss of countless archaeological relics dating back to thousands of years,
It is clear that the risks that some of these behemoth Chinese projects pose far outweigh any potential economic benefit they are likely bring to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. In fact, all indications are that the sides that stand to gain the most economically are the Chinese and the four Pakistani provinces, not the local people.
Even the Pakistani gains may be short-term, when one considers the long-term environmental consequences of some of these projects. Pakistan, especially, the country’s military that has historically called the shot, should rethink its policy of giving the Chinese a carte blanche to build whatever it wants to in Gilgit-Baltistan. China’s Infrastructure Project in Gilgit-Baltistan
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.
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