ISLAMABAD: Environmental expert asks Prime Minister Imran Khan to take notice of the trans-boundary environmental hazards of India’s strategic Zojila and Z-Morh tunnels, following the dumping of 17,345 million tonnes of rocks, loose soil, and silt in Jhelum River.
India has made substantial advancements on its strategic project, 14.2km Zojila tunnel and 6.5km Z-Morh tunnel currently under construction in the Himalayas between Sonmarg and Drass town in the Kargil district of Kashmir.
The project aims to facilitate the logistics of the Indian Army to the Siachen Glacier and forward garrison posts in Ladakh, along the Chinese border. However, this project could be catastrophic for Pakistan’s rivers as Indian authorities are disposing of the excavated material weighing 17,345 million tonnes of rocks, loose soil, and silt in Jhelum River, Jammu and Kashmir. The flow of sediments in water can reduce the storage capacity of Mangla Dam, the sixth-largest dam in the world. When Jhelum enters Pakistan at Chakoti, it turns red because of the pollutants it carries due to blasting and construction activities upstream.
These construction activities would also increase seismic vulnerability in the area close to the Line of Control (LoC). Drilling and uncontrolled blasting during the construction might change the tectonic settings and later trigger fragile regions. Air pollution, groundwater pollution, evacuation and accumulation of bran, traffic problems, earth summit possibility, earthquake, sedimentation, and landslides are some of the consequences of drilling and blasting in the mountainous terrain.
This information has been shared in a letter written to Prime Minister Imran Khan and Special Assistant to PM Malik Amin Aslam by Arshad H Abbasi, eminent water and energy expert associated with Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). Abbasi has also been the party of Track-II dialogue with India on water issues. Along with the letter, he also sent footage and maps of the ongoing tunnel construction activities.
The letter asked the PM and Ministry of Climate Change to take notice of the heavy sedimentation flow in the Jhelum river due to the environmentally disastrous project.
The letter also submitted a recommendation to the PM for implementation of the TEIA (Trans-boundary Environment Impact Assessment) which the International Court of Justice had introduced as a requirement under general international law in the famous Pulp Mills case. Abbasi said that the TEIA of the Zojila tunnel project was imperative to quantify the environmental damage and sedimentation flow into Pakistan.
Construction, which began in May 2018, was part of plans to expand the 18.475km highway between Z-Morh to Zojila. Z-Morh Tunnel partially opened for traffic on December 10, 2021, while since January 15, 2022 almost 26 percent of the excavation work of the Zojila tunnel has been completed.
Estimated excavated material consists of 17,345 million tonnes of rocks, loose soil, and silt. The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change illegally allowed Border Road Organization (BRO), an organ of the Indian Army, to clear 108 hectares of the dense forest of district Ganderbal and 89 hectares in District Kargil for the approach road to the tunnels. The site for both tunnels falls in Zone 5, an area prone to earthquakes of MSK IX intensity.
Abbasi reminded the PM of the case of Brahmaputra River. When river water had turned black in November 2017, the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change immediately brought the case to the notice of Indian Premier Modi, who took it up with the government of China. The length of this trans-boundary river in India was only 916km, but there was not a single dam over the entire length in the Indian zone.
The letter also asked if India would compensate Pakistan in case of an earthquake of higher magnitude in this area, which was hardly 16km from the LoC.
Urging the PM to find a way to call out India for damages of seismic activity in this zone, Abbasi also expressed his concerns about projects’ military purposes in the already fragile area of Ladakh, which falls within the watershed of the Indus and Shyok Rivers. Since the establishment of the Indian Army XIV Corps in Leh, Ladakh and the illegal occupation of the Siachen Glacier, glaciers in the region were melting at an alarming rate, the letter noted.
The SDPI expert also sought the attention of the PM towards Principle 19 of the United Nations Rio Declaration, which refers to the significance of the procedures, as does the International Law Commission on Prevention of Trans-boundary Harm from Hazardous Activities. Principle 19 reads: “States shall provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected States on activities that may have a significant adverse trans-boundary environmental effect and shall consult with those States at an early stage and in good faith.”
The International Court of Justice recognised in 2010, for the first time, that states were under an obligation to undertake environmental impact assessments before carrying out projects that might cause adverse trans-boundary impacts.