Indian rescuers search for missing after Himalayan glacier bursts

Fourteen confirmed dead and at least 170 others missing after a chunk of glacier broke off and unleashed a devastating flash flood.

Fourteen people are confirmed dead and at least 170 others missing after a part of a Himalayan glacier broke away in India, setting off a torrent of water, rock and dust down a mountain valley, officials said.

“A total of 15 people have been rescued and 14 bodies have been recovered from different places so far,” the state government of Uttarakhand, in the country’s north, said on Twitter on Monday.

Sunday’s violent surge swept away a small hydroelectric project called Rishiganga and damaged a bigger one further downstream. “There was a cloud of dust as the water went by. The ground shook like an earthquake,” said resident Om Agarwal.

Most of the missing were people working on the two projects, one of the many the government has been building deep in the mountains of Uttarakhand state as part of a development push.

This handout photo taken on February 7, 2021 and released by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) shows members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) during the rescue operation [Indo-Tibetan Border Police/ AFP]

Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, who is in Rishikesh, said rescue efforts at the site resumed early on Monday morning as hundreds of military personnel were deployed.

“There are a lot of questions being asked about why hydroelectric power plants were being built in such ecologically sensitive areas,” she said.

Rescue workers were focused on a 2.5 km (1.5 miles) long tunnel where workers were believed trapped.

Vivek Pandey, a spokesman of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force, said 30-35 workers were believed to be inside the tunnel and that rescuers were trying to open its mouth and get inside.

There had been no voice contact yet with anyone in the tunnel, another official said.

The state-run NTPC hydropower project site was damaged after a broken glacier caused a major river surge that swept away bridges and roads, near Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, on February 7, 2021 [Ajay Bhatt/AFP]

On Sunday, 12 people were rescued from another tunnel.

Videos on social media showed water surging through a small dam site, washing away construction equipment and bringing down small bridges.

“Everything was swept away, people, cattle and trees,” Sangram Singh Rawat, a former village council member of Raini, the site closest to the glacier, told local media.

Some 400 soldiers have been deployed to the site in the remote mountains, state authorities said.

Members of the humanitarian organisation the Indian Red Cross Society were also present at the site, and “actively participating” with relief efforts, spokeswoman Neeru Petwal told Al Jazeera via Skype.

“We expect to carry on operations for the next 24 to 48 hours,” said Satya Pradhan, the chief of the National Disaster Response Force.

With the main road washed away, the tunnel was filled with mud and rocks and paramilitary rescuers had to climb down a hillside on ropes to get access to the entrance.

‘It came very fast’

A witness said he saw a wall of dust, rocks and water as an avalanche roared down a river valley.

“It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone,” Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives on the upper reaches of Raini village, told Reuters news agency by phone.

“I felt that even we would be swept away.”

Villages on hillsides overlooking the sacred river were evacuated, but authorities later on Sunday said the main flood danger had passed.

Local authorities reported that districts including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun were put on high alert.

The Times of India newspaper quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying he was monitoring the situation in Uttarakhand.

“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there. Have been continuously speaking to senior authorities and getting updates on … rescue work and relief operations,” said Modi.

The prime minister announced an “ex-gratia” or discretionary payment of 200,000 Indian rupees ($2,748) for the families of the deceased, and 50,000 rupees ($687) for those seriously injured in the accident.


‘Halt hydroelectric projects’

Uttarakhand in the Himalayas is prone to flash floods and landslides. In June 2013, record rainfall caused devastating floods that killed close to 6,000.

That disaster was dubbed the “Himalayan tsunami” because of the torrents of water unleashed in the mountainous area, which sent mud and rocks crashing down, burying homes, sweeping away buildings, roads and bridges.

Uma Bharti, India’s former water resources minister and a senior leader of Modi’s party, criticised the construction of a power project in the area.

“When I was a minister, I had requested that Himalaya is a very sensitive place, so power projects should not be built on Ganga and its main tributaries,” she said on Twitter, referring to the main river that flows from the mountain.

Environmental experts called for a halt to big hydroelectric projects in the state.

“This disaster again calls for a serious scrutiny of the hydropower dams building spree in this eco-sensitive region,” said Ranjan Panda, a volunteer for the Combat Climate Change Network that works on water, environment and climate change issues.

“The government should no longer ignore warnings from experts and stop building hydropower projects and extensive highway networks in this fragile ecosystem.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies