Islamabad – Waste disposal is not just a problem in city streets across Pakistan. Even the country’s glaciers and mountain peaks are not safe from it.
Despite a waste management fee paid by mountaineering expeditions, tons of trash and human waste are accumulated on the glaciers and mountain base camps in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) every year.
Government and nongovernment officials working in G-B’s mountains consider the waste disposal an administrative problem primarily, caused by poor financial management. They believe a better model for fee collection and distribution could improve the situation. But in the absence of government support, private cleaning efforts suggest more anti-littering awareness could be a short-term solution.
The accumulated trash is not expected to contribute to climate change because the affected area is very small compared to Pakistan’s total glacial mass, according to glaciologist Christoph Mayer, who has worked in the Karakorams since 2004. But Mayer thinks the trash and human waste discarded on the glaciers could potentially degrade the quality of drinking water supplied by glacial melt.
Pakistan has around 5,200 glaciers, according to a 2005 glacier inventory conducted by the ICIMOD. These glaciers span over an estimated 15,000 square kilometers and provide for almost 80 per cent of the water in the River Indus.
“The only way you can save the water coming from the glacier from being polluted is to bring back everything that you take to the glacier,” Mayer, who is a professor at Germany’s Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, said.
But when trekking expeditions reach the base camps or the glaciers, they are technically not liable for littering. They have already deposited a $200 “pollution fee” per expedition to the G-B Council secretariat in Islamabad. Additional items they purchase along the trek add to the weight they and their porters have to carry back.
“At the K-2 base camp, a 1.5 litre of soda costs Rs1,500,” said Raja Abid Ali, director of the Central Karakoram National Park, which houses some of the world’s tallest peaks and longest glaciers. “Why would they bring such additional expensive item back with them in the downward trek, when they have already paid for its proper disposal?”
According to secretariat officials, around 80 per cent of the fee is passed on the G-B government’s treasury. From there, the government is entrusted to allocate funds to the tourism department for waste disposal on high-altitudes.
An estimated 60 trekking expeditions go to the Baltoro glacier in the Karakoram each year, according to private estimates. Even though each expedition varies in number, the estimated Rs120,000 the expeditions pay could provide some relief for the glaciers. But officials suggest the waste disposal funds are never allocated to the tourism department or the park officials. Secretary G-B tourism department, Akhtar Hussain, did not respond for comments.
Meanwhile, the discarded trash refuses to go away. Usually, it gets covered by layers of snow and ice, Ali said, and when a glacier’s cover bursts, the trash gets unearthed naturally. In one private cleaning effort in Baltoro glacier, an oxygen cylinder dated 1947 was discovered, he said.
“It was a huge mess,” said Raffaele Del Cima, country managing director of EvK2CNR, as he recalled the first time EvK2CNR launched a cleanliness drive at Baltoro.
EvK2CNR, an Italy-based international research organisation, has collected and disposed off at least 30 tonnes of waste from the glacier and K-2 base camp since 2009, according to the organisation’s website. In 2010, EvK2CNR also placed eight toilets at Concordia and eighty drums of human waste was transported downhill. Currently, the organisation has come up with portable toilets and special bags for proper collection and disposal of human waste and trash at Baltoro, Del Cima said.
Possible solutions include sensitizing tourists to bring back their garbage and routing the pollution fee directly to local communities or the tourism department. But Del Cima said the fee model is ad-hoc and should also be improved.
“It should be based on a scientific study of how much waste is generated by each expedition and what is the cost of its collection, transportation and disposal,” he said.
Del Cima said such a study has been conducted and made part of the draft management plan for the CKNP, which is pending approval from the G-B government.