Rescuers in desperate search for survivors after 18 dead and 200 missing in India glacier collapse

Stuti MishraMon, 8 February 2021, 5:40 pm

<p>Members of Indo-Tibetan Border Police tend to people rescued after a Himalayan glacier broke and swept away a small hydroelectric dam, in northern India</p> (REUTERS)
Members of Indo-Tibetan Border Police tend to people rescued after a Himalayan glacier broke and swept away a small hydroelectric dam, in northern India(REUTERS)

At least 18 people are dead and more than 200 have been reported missing after a Himalayan glacier collapsed and unleashed a devastating flood in northern India’s Uttarakhand state.

The flood was triggered on Sunday morning after debris from a glacier collapse burst open a dam and flooded a valley, destroying bridges, roads and two hydroelectric power plants in Uttarakhand, near India’s border with Tibet, an area which is prone to flash floods and landslides.

Dramatic video footage shared online by rescuers showed construction workers pulled from narrow, muddy tunnels where they had been trapped by the flood.

Officials said more than 300 members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have been deployed to the mountainous area, along with paramilitary forces and military helicopters for the rescue operation.

“Rescue operations to save at least 30 people who are stranded at a tunnel near Tapovan Dam in Chamoli district is underway while 12 people have already been rescued from another tunnel,” police spokesperson Vivek Pandey was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

The bodies of 18 people have been recovered so far, officials said on Monday afternoon. “As of now, around 203 people are missing,” state chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said.

“Everything was swept away, people, cattle and trees,” Sangram Singh Rawat, a former village council member of Raini, the site closest to the Rishiganga project, told local media.

Most of the missing were people working on two hydropower projects, two of the many the government has been building deep in the mountains of Uttarakhand state as part of a development push, according to Indian media reports.

Investigations into precisely what caused huge flood will take time, but activists and experts on social media platforms are already raising questions over the scale of the power plants and infrastructure being built in ecologically sensitive areas of the state.

The director-general of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) has said that initial indications point to glacial calving – where chunks of ice break away from a larger glacier – but a committee of experts will be appointed to conduct a full study.

“Post this devastation, we’ll again constitute a committee as it’s too early to predict regarding the cause of the incident. Prima facie, it’s glacial calving at the highest altitude in Rishi Ganga and Dhauliganga area and upper reaches of that,” Ranjit Rath told reporters.

In a tweet on Sunday, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said he was keeping a close watch on the situation in Uttarakhand.

“Have been continuously speaking to authorities and getting updates on … deployment, rescue work and relief operations,” he said in a tweet.

“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there.”

Leaders from across the world have also sent their condolences to the families of the victims.

“My thoughts are with the people of India and rescue workers in Uttarakhand as they respond to devastating flooding from the glacier collapse,” said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a tweet. “The UK stands in solidarity with India and is ready to offer any support needed.”

In 2013, almost 6,000 people lost their lives in Uttarakhand after a multi-day cloudburst caused devastating floods and landslides in the state.

Additional reporting by agencies