Officials are already pointing to climate change as the cause of a devastating disaster Sunday that killed at least nine people and left 140 construction workers missing in northern India, after a Himalayan glacier fractured and triggered a torrential flood that slammed into two hydroelectric plants.
The flood began “when a portion of Nanda Devi glacier snapped off in the morning, releasing water trapped behind it,” The Associated Press reports, citing local authorities. “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,” two waterways that merge into the Ganges after they flow out of the Himalayan mountains.
“Video from India’s northern state of Uttarakhand showed the muddy, concrete-gray floodwaters tumbling through a valley and surging into a dam, breaking it into pieces with little resistance before roaring on downstream,” AP adds. “The flood turned the countryside into what looked like an ash-coloured moonscape.”
A hydroelectric plant on the Alaknanda was destroyed, while a second one under construction on the Dhauliganga was damaged, said Vivek Pandey, a spokesperson for the paramilitary Indo Tibetan Border Police. Officials had no figures yet for the number of houses damaged or destroyed by the flooding. AP says more than 2,000 military, paramilitary, and police personnel mobilized for search and rescue efforts.
Out of at least 42 workers trapped in two tunnels at the Dhauliganga site, Pandey said 12 had been rescued and another 30 were still stranded. “The rescuers used ropes and shovels to reach the mouth of the tunnel,” said Uttarakhan Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat. “They dug through the debris and entered the tunnel. They are yet to come in touch with the stranded people.” A total of 140 workers at the two sites were missing.
Scientists immediately connected the disaster to research pointing to heightened flood risk in the Himalayas due to climate change (including at least one study that made specific mention of hydroelectric projects). “This looks very much like a climate change event, as the glaciers are melting due to global warming,” said Anjal Prakash, an IPCC author who serves at research director and adjunct professor at the Indian School of Business.