A vehicle is seen among the remains of houses damaged by a flood along the Teesta River, in Rongpo, east Sikkim, India, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Air Force helicopters managed to land on Monday to rescue people in the northeast Indian Himalayas, after a hydroelectric dam built six years ago burst last week under heavy rain and flooded a valley with water from a glacial lake, which It washed away bridges and houses while thousands of people fled.
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Rescuers have found 52 bodies so far and are still searching for about 100 missing people. After the weather improved in Sikim state, helicopters arrived in the most affected district, Mangan, to help some 3,000 stranded tourists.
The design and location of the Teesta 3 dam, the largest hydroelectric facility in the state of Sikkim, was controversial since its construction. A 2019 report identified Lake Lhonak as “very vulnerable” to flooding that could burst dams and cause extensive damage.
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It was unclear what had caused the deadly flood that began Wednesday morning, adding to other similar events in northeastern India in a year of unusually heavy monsoon rains. Experts said downpours and a magnitude 6.2 earthquake that shook neighboring Nepal on Tuesday afternoon could have contributed to the incident.
Vehicles damaged after the passage of water. EFE/EPA/INDIAN ARMY / HANDOUT
The flood began when the glacial lake overflowed, breaching the Teesta 3 dam. The frigid waters then swept over villages in the valley below and swept some bodies for several kilometers (miles), where they were found in the neighboring state of West Bengal and in Bangladesh.
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On Sunday night, as the skies cleared and the rain stopped, 89 tourists stranded by damaged roads were evacuated by air from north Sikkim. About 10 tourists, including five Thais, were able to walk to safety with the help of rescuers. Police said Monday they would continue to make helicopter trips weather permitting.
The flood destroyed several bridges, hit pipelines and damaged hundreds of homes in north Sikkim. Of the 23 Indian soldiers previously reported missing, one was rescued and nine others were confirmed dead, according to authorities. The search for the others was still underway.
There is no land access or mobile connectivity in the area, which complicates rescue efforts and the arrival of information. Thousands of people took shelter in aid camps set up by the state.
A vehicle that was swept away by the floodwaters submerged next to a building flooded by flash floods in Rangpo, Sikkim, India, on Oct. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Prakash Adhikari)
Experts said the floods underscored a climate dilemma pitting local environmental activists, who believe dams in the Himalayas are too dangerous, and Indian authorities who want to advance their clean energy goals.
Despite the risks posed by dams due to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the federal government aims to increase Indian hydroelectric production by half, to 70,000 megawatts by 2030.
Several localities, including Dikchu and Rangpo in Teesta district, were flooded.
Rangpo resident Muhammad Karim had been searching for his father, brother and sister-in-law for five days. “I have no clues (…) I have asked the police for help, but there has been no progress so far.”
A man puts a piece of metal on the door of his house to prevent water from entering. Europa Press/Contact/Debarchan Chatterjee
Homes and buildings in the town were covered in mud as excavators searched through the remains to recover bodies over the weekend.
Disasters caused by landslides and flooding are common in the Indian Himalayan region during the monsoon season, between June and September. Scientists say they are becoming more frequent as global warming helps melt the area’s glaciers.
Himalayan glaciers could lose 80% of their volume if global warming is not controlled, according to a report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
(with information from AP)