HOT PURSUIT IN SNOWY SIACHEN
Hydrogeologist taps into a hot water source at 3,540 metres near Army base camp
The Indian Army on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen, now has a major advantage over its Pakistani adversaries. And no, it is not superior gun positions glowering over the Himalayan glacier, but the prospect of perennial hot showers where extreme winter temperature plummets to minus 40 degrees Celsius and the freeze claims more lives than bullets.
This is the incredible gift that Ritesh Arya, 44, a hydrogeologist specialising in high altitude exploration, gave the troops at Siachen Base Camp One on April 19 when he unbelievably tapped into a geothermal ( heated) water source at 3,540 metres. The result: Endless supply of hot water in a place where it takes thousands of gallons of diesel and kerosene to keep the kitchen and laundry running.
Besides saving Indian soldiers from chilblains, the availability of natural warm water will also significantly slow down further degradation of the highly precarious glacial ecology caused by the constant burning of fossil fuels. “This is a dream come true. Nobody would have ever thought it would be possible to drill into a hot water source on these bone- chilling heights. But I was certain it could be done,” says Arya.
Within walking distance of the mighty, 70- km- long glacier’s rapidly shrinking snout, ‘ Arya’s well’ produces 12,000 litres of water every hour. Though infused with sulphur, undrinkable and only lukewarm, the water could help unravel a host of never- before possibilities to make soldiering in Siachen a little less difficult.
The Army had given Arya’s drilling company, Arya Drillers, a contract in June 2011 to explore a hot water source for the troops. This, after efforts to harness a thermal spring at Sasoma, 7 km south of the base camp, had to be abandoned amid objections from local villagers who use the precious resource for medicinal purposes.
A veteran of more than a thousand borewells in some of the most treacherous locations across Ladakh, including an artesian well ( gusher) at Chushul that won him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in November 2004, Arya was sure he would find hot water in the glacier’s innards. Arya’s company is estimated to have drilled nearly 500 freshwater wells over the past 12 years. Eleven years ago, while drilling his first freshwater wells for the troops in Siachen, he had spotted a location along a zone of fractured granites at the edge of Base Camp One.
From the first trickle of warm water in October 2011, the drilling team’s real eureka moment came six months later when both the flow and temperature sustained through Siachen’s snow- bound winter. Excited Army jawans rushed out to wash utensils or simply delight themselves in the warmth of Arya’s ‘ magic well’ when the gusher was put through its final test on the afternoon of April 19.
“He has a rare insight that flouts conventional knowledge, that I think is based on his training as a geologist,” says Professor Ashok Sahni, 71, one of the country’s best- known geoscientists, who has nominated Arya for this year’s National Geoscience Award. His citation reads: “For his pioneering work in providing abundant, clean and potable water to the Army, Tibetan settlements, monasteries and the common man in the high Himalayan terrain of Ladakh and Karakoram.”
What Arya really dreams of is complete demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier. “Siachen means an abundance of wild roses and that is how it should be,” he says.