Rescue crews in India are struggling to reach trapped victims after part of a glacier in the Himalayas broke off, and released a torrent of water and debris that slammed into two hydroelectric plants below.
At least nine people were killed and 140 were missing late on Sunday in a disaster experts said appeared to point to global warming.
The breaking of a glacier in the middle of winter comes after scientists warned in a 2019 study that rising temperatures in the Himalayas have been melting the region’s glaciers at an “alarming rate”.
Video from India’s northern state of Uttarakhand showed the muddy floodwaters tumbling through a valley and surging into a dam, breaking it into pieces with little resistance before roaring on downstream.
Desperate rescue effort after ‘Himalayan tsunami’
The disaster has been dubbed the “Himalayan tsunami” because of the torrents of water unleashed in the mountainous area.
More than 2,000 members of the military, paramilitary groups and police were deployed to search for those missing.
In the hours after the disaster, experts said it appeared to be the result of a landslide that triggered the breaking up of the glacier.
The flood was caused when a portion of Nanda Devi glacier snapped off in the morning, releasing water trapped behind it, authorities said. It rushed down the mountain and into other bodies of water, forcing the evacuation of many villages along the banks of the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers.
Flowing out of the Himalayan mountains, the two rivers meet before merging with the Ganges River.
A hydroelectric plant on the Alaknanda was destroyed, and a plant under construction on the Dhauliganga was damaged, local authorities said.
“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter.
At least 12 people who had been trapped in a tunnel in the Dhauliganga project had been rescued and efforts were under way to save others caught in another tunnel, the federal home ministry said after a meeting of the National Crisis Committee on Sunday.
“The rescuers used ropes and shovels to reach the mouth of the tunnel. They dug through the debris and entered the tunnel. They are yet to come in touch with the stranded people,” Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, Uttarakhand’s top elected official, said.
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) February 7, 2021
‘We could see the fury’
Frightened locals have described the intensity with which the terrain gave way and surged down the mountainside.
“It all started sometime around 10 in the morning. We heard a bang, which shook our village,” Dinesh Negi, a resident of Raini village, told The Associated Press by phone.
He said they watched from high above one of the rivers as the water turned muddy and surged in a torrent.
“We knew something wrong had happened,” Negi said. “We could see the fury of the river.”
Ratan Singh Rana, a 55-year-old from the village of Raini near the Rishiganga project, told The New York Times he and his family began running uphill when they saw the “black liquid” streaming down the mountain.
“I was sitting on the floor of my house,” he said.
“I saw black liquid flowing from the Nanda Devi mountainside — down with a lot of noise — as if a volcano had erupted.
“It was only 20-25 metres away from us,” he added. “We ran uphill about 250 metres and kept on crying and shouting,” he said.
Rescue work on the second tunnel was stopped temporarily only due to some rise in water level..it has already started again. The machine clearing the slush again at the entry of tunnel.. #Uttrakhand @TV9Bharatvarsh @utkarshs88 @ITBP_official pic.twitter.com/QZhDbNaPKw
— Ankit Bhat (@AnkitBhat09) February 7, 2021
Tragedy ‘looks like climate change event’
Scientists have long known that global warning is contributing to the melting and the break up of the world’s glaciers.
Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct professor at the Indian School of Business who has contributed to UN-sponsored research on global warming, said that while data on the cause of the disaster was still being made available, “this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming”.
3D rendering of @planetlabs image collected 7th Feb showing the source of the Uttarakhand disaster located by @WaterSHEDLab. Appears to be a complete detachment of a previously glaciated slope #Chamoli #Disaster #Landslide pic.twitter.com/SElrZh36kH
— Scott Watson (@CScottWatson) February 7, 2021
Some have criticised the government for pursuing construction so close to the glaciers at a time when the area was so vulnerable to the effects of global warming.
“This disaster again calls for a serious scrutiny of the hydropower dams building spree in this eco-sensitive region,” Ranjan Panda – a volunteer for the Combat Climate Change Network that works on water, environment and climate change issues – said.
“The government should no longer ignore warnings from experts and stop building hydropower projects and extensive highway networks in this fragile ecosystem.”
In 2013, thousands of people were killed in Uttarakhand after heavy rains triggered landslides and floods, washing away thousands of houses and roads and cutting communications in many places.
with AP, wires
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