Long before the floods arrived, dragging hundreds of people and destroying newly constructed bridges and dams, the signs of danger were already clear.
The Himalayan mountain range has been warming at an alarming rate for years, melting the ice contained for millennia in glaciers, soil and rocks and increasing the risk of devastating floods and landslides.
Scientists have warned neighboring residents are in danger and the region’s ecosystem is too fragile to support large development projects.
The Indian government, however, ignored objections from experts and protests from locals, detonating rocks and building hydroelectric power plants in unstable areas like the one where the avalanche occurred on Sunday (7), in the state. of Uttarakhand, in the north of the country.
Authorities said Monday (26) that the bodies of 26 victims have been found, while the search for nearly 200 missing people continues. A flood of water and debris descended through the rugged mountain valleys of the Rishiganga River, wiping out everything in its path. Most of the victims were workers at hydroelectric power stations.
Residents of the village said that the authorities responsible for the region’s development projects had not prepared them for what was to come, spreading a false sense of confidence that nothing would happen.
“The government has not offered the village any programs or training to deal with a disaster,” said Bhawan Singh Rana, chief of Raini village, one of the worst affected. “Our village is on rocks. Our fear is that they could slip at any time.
Security forces directed their efforts to a tunnel where 30 people were believed to be trapped, and food was thrown into the air in 13 villages with blocked access roads and 2,500 isolated people.
The devastation of the floods in Uttarakhand has once again drawn attention to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, where millions of people are feeling the impact of global warming.
The World Bank has warned that climate change could seriously affect the lives of nearly 800 million people in South Asia. But the effects are already being felt, often fatally, over vast swathes of the Himalayas, from Bhutan to Afghanistan.
The region has about 15,000 glaciers, and they are receding 30 to 60 meters per decade. The melted ice expands or creates thousands of glacial lakes that can abruptly cut through the ice barrier and the rocky debris that contains it, causing catastrophic flooding.
A large number of glacial lakes in Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan have already been classified as imminent danger by the intergovernmental entity International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
Nepal is particularly vulnerable to the problem; climate change is forcing entire villages across the country to migrate to the lowlands in order to survive the growing water crisis. Unplanned and fatal flooding occurred more frequently, some of which was caused by the rupture of ice barriers in lakes.
Scientists have already issued repeated warnings that building development projects in the region is a high-risk bet, with the potential to worsen the situation.
Ravi Chopra, director of the Uttarakhand Institute of Folklore, said a panel of experts established by the government in 2012 recommended not building dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, which covers the Rishiganga river.
Chopra was part of a committee of scientists appointed by the Supreme Court of India in 2014 and also advised against building dams in the so-called “paraglacial zone,” which he described as an area where the bottom of the valley is over 2,100 meters above sea level.
“But the government still chose to build the dams,” he said. The two hydroelectric dams affected by Sunday’s flooding were built in this area. One was completely destroyed and the other severely damaged.
Scientist DP Dobhal, a former government official at the Wadia Institute for Himalayan Geology, said: “When we build projects in the Himalayas like hydroelectric, road or rail projects, the data from the studies on glaciers are never included or taken into account in detailed project reports. “.
The government is building over 800 km of highways in Uttarkhand to improve access to several important Hindu temples, despite objections from environmentalists to the massive deforestation needed, which can accelerate erosion and increase the possibility of landslides .
A committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India and chaired by Chopra concluded last year that by building the 10-meter-wide highway, the government had contradicted the recommendation of its own experts from the Ministry of Transport.
The government argued that a wider highway guaranteed more economic dividends and was necessary for the potential shipment of large military equipment to the disputed border with China.
When the Supreme Court ruled that the highway could not be more than 5.5 meters wide, hundreds of hectares of forest and tens of thousands of trees had already been felled, according to a report on the site of Indian information The Scroll.
“When experts from your own ministry tell you that the roads in the Himalayan region cannot be paved more than 5.5 meters wide, then you go over their recommendations, that’s a serious problem.” , said Chopra. “Unless the courts look into the possibility of personally punishing and holding the authorities to account, I think the situation will not change.”
Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Ranwat said the floods should not be seen as “a reason to build an anti-development narrative”.
“I reiterate our government’s commitment to develop the Uttarakhand mountains in a sustainable manner,” Rawat said on Twitter. “We will do everything and pass all obstacles to make sure this goal is met.”
On Sunday, the village of Reini was in one of the hardest hit areas, when the 13 megawatt Rishiganga hydroelectric power station was completely destroyed. After the flood, 100 of the 150 inhabitants of the village spent the night outside.
“We don’t sleep in our houses, fearing that more water will come, that the rocks will be moved, that something more dangerous will happen,” said Rana, the village chief. “We took our blankets into the forest, made some fires and spent the night like that.
In the 1970s, the region was the scene of an environmental protest against deforestation, which made headlines. Protesters, many of whom were women, hugged trees to prevent them from being felled. The movement became known as the “chipko”, or hug.
Rana said villagers also protested against the construction of the Rishiganga hydropower plant, which started generating electricity last year. They even took legal action, but it had no effect. They feared that the explosion of rocks could cause landslides with deadly effects.
“We heard explosions and saw the rocks move,” he said. “During the construction of this hydroelectric power station, half of our village was the victim of a landslide. We asked to be moved to another location. The government said it would, but nothing happened.