Kolkata, Oct 6 (The Street Press) – At least 40 individuals lost their lives this week in the Indian Himalayas as a glacial lake overflowed, causing flash floods, according to government officials who informed Reuters on Friday. Search and rescue efforts are ongoing to locate dozens who remain missing.
Lhonak Lake, situated in the mountainous northeastern state of Sikkim, experienced an overflow on Wednesday. This occurred following a cloudburst, which led to heavy rainfall and an apparent avalanche, resulting in significant flooding in the Teesta River.
This calamity ranks among the most severe disasters in the region in over five decades. It adds to a string of extreme weather events that have inflicted extensive damage in the Himalayan region of South Asia in recent years, a phenomenon attributed by scientists to climate change. Officials in Sikkim reported that this recent disaster, occurring just before the popular festive and tourism season in the picturesque state, has adversely affected the lives of approximately 22,000 people.
Scientists and government authorities had been collaborating on the development of an early warning system for glacial floods at Lhonak Lake. If fully operational, this system could have provided valuable time for evacuations. Officials involved in the project shared this information with Reuters.
Initially, Sikkim officials reported a death toll of 18 on Thursday evening. However, officials in the downstream state of West Bengal informed Reuters that emergency teams had recovered an additional 22 bodies that had been washed away by the floods.
As of now, approximately 75 individuals remain missing in the affected areas. Tseten Bhutia, a state official, informed Reuters that while water levels have subsided in some regions, north Sikkim has been entirely cut off. This isolation is hindering relief teams from reaching the affected areas. Furthermore, mobile and landline phone networks are not functioning in the area.
Bhutia mentioned that around 2,400 people have been evacuated, with 7,600 people taking refuge in relief camps. Private and government institutions in the area are closed until October 15 due to the ongoing crisis.
Firearms and Explosives Washed Away
The devastation includes the loss of fifteen bridges in the state, which is impeding rescue efforts significantly. According to the Indian government, all bridges downstream of the NHPC hydropower station Teesta-V have either been submerged or swept away.
Social media posts featuring photos and videos depict roads and pathways buried in silt and stones, vehicles trapped, and small, muddy streams running alongside hillsides.
In response to the situation, the army has announced plans to evacuate approximately 1,500 stranded tourists using helicopters as weather conditions in the region become more favorable.
Military equipment, including firearms and explosives, was carried away by the Teesta River, as confirmed by a defense ministry spokesperson in a social media post.
Tragically, one mortar shell from the military equipment was found by individuals in a neighboring district in West Bengal state. Regrettably, it later exploded, resulting in the death of one child and injuries to six people, as reported by local lawmaker Pradeep Kumar Barma to ANI news agency.
The weather department reported that Sikkim experienced 101 mm (four inches) of rainfall in the first five days of October, which is more than double the normal levels. This deluge resulted in floods worse than the ones in October 1968, during which an estimated 1,000 people lost their lives.
While heavy rain is predicted in parts of the region on Friday, the India Meteorological Department anticipates that the intensity of showers will diminish.
Sikkim, a small Buddhist state with a population of about 650,000, nestled in the mountains between Nepal, Bhutan, and China, has become isolated from Siliguri in West Bengal due to the collapse of the main highway that connects it to the rest of the country.