It just once a day since a glacier broke off in the Tapovan-Reni area of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, leading to massive flooding in the Alaknanda river system that swept away anything stood in the way. Hydel projects, bridges and houses along the river were washed away. Around 100 people who were working did not return home and are now feared to be dead. Experts say a warning system for flash floods in states like Uttarakhand is far less complicated, and in most instances, an impending disaster can be detected several hours, even days in advance.

“A lake burst, for example, does not happen all of a sudden. There are ample indications that can be monitored. Changes in water level, discharge in the rivers, excessive rainfall in the catchment areas, are all things that can be measured. Regular monitoring can sometimes tell us weeks in advance about the danger, and in many cases, it could even be possible to avert the tragedy. For instance, a lake burst can be prevented in some cases if a drainage is constructed that lets out water at regulated levels,” says Anil V Kulkarni, a glaciologist and visiting distinguished scientist at Divecha Centre for Climate Change at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru at Indian express article.

UNDERSTAND SITUATION BETTER 

This massive flooding was apparently caused by a piece of the Nanda Devi glacier falling into the Alaknanda river in Tapovan area and bursting through the Rishiganga dam, wrecking the hydropower project there as well as the Tapovan project downstream. As of Monday noon, 19 people have been confirmed dead. Nearly 200 people are missing, according to the police. At Rishiganga, a worker said that at power project they saw 30-40 people going under the rubble and a few being swept away by the surging waters. Relief and rescue teams dispatched by the central and state governments were trying to find the missing people until late in the evening when low visibility halted their work, he added according to a BBC article.

While the Rishiganga project near Raini village has been completely destroyed, the larger Tapovan project on the Dhauliganga has also suffered extensive damage.

HOW THIS HAPPENED?

It’s suspected that the floods were caused by a “glacier burst”, about 22 km upstream of Joshimath. But glaciologist DP Dobhal of Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology Dehradun said it is “extremely difficult to say what really happened”. “The local people are telling me that they saw water and silt flowing at high speed for 10-15 minutes in the morning. This is a sign of a big burst. Rubble may have gathered in a lake area of Rishiganga valley, and the water body collapsed because of the avalanche. It is also possible that the avalanche came yesterday or this morning,” he added. “This disaster is similar to the Kedarnath disaster but that occurred during the monsoon and this is the winter season.”

The 2013 Kedarnath disaster, which took nearly 5,000 lives, was caused by flooding in the Mandakini river following a cloudburst. This week’s disaster could have been even worse had it happened in monsoon when the rivers flow at capacity. In winter, the rivers carry little water and this is what saved areas such as Srinagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar from destruction.

The disaster has again brought under the scanner the dozens of hydel projects being constructed in Uttarakhand. An expert committee set up by the Supreme Court after the Kedarnath disaster had clearly said that hydel projects played a big role in amplifying the scale of natural disasters. Specifically, discussion has focused on hydropower projects rampantly flouting rules, not least in the blasting and disposal of rubble which is seen to have contributed to making rivers more ferocious.

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