Video Producer: Mayank Chawla
Video Editor: Prajjwal Kumar
A classic extreme weather event, torrential rain over the remote South Lhonak glacial lake, way in excess of the state’s normal rainfall, causes it to burst, resulting in flash floods that bring death and destruction to large parts of Sikkim downstream.
Rewind 10 years to Uttarakhand in June 2013. A cloudburst over Chorabari Tal glacial lake, above the Kedarnath shrine, causes a devastating flash flood.
The similarities between these two events are striking and tragic. Over 6,000 people are estimated to have died in the Kedarnath disaster. Pilgrims and local residents.
How Sikkim Tragedy Is A Tale That Repeats Itself
In Sikkim, which has a more sparse population, and because the excessive rains had been pounding the state for some time, local residents did move to higher ground, there were fewer casualties. Even so, the deluge has claimed over 15 lives. At last count, over 100 people were missing, including 22 Army soldiers.
The Teesta III dam at Chungthang, estimated to have cost India Rs 14,000 crores, has been destroyed. Several crucial bridges were swept away, a strategically sensitive national highway damaged extensively, and entire townships that dot either side of the Teesta River were wrecked.
Why? Because lessons were not learnt.
In the list of India’s worst flood disasters, flash floods in recent years, across India’s Himalayan regions are prominent –
August 2010 saw flash floods and massive mudslides in Ladakh, including the capital Leh. 255 people died.
In September 2012, in Sikkim itself, flash floods and accompanying landslides killed at least 22 people.
In September 2014, extremely high rains inundated large parts of the Kashmir valley including most of Srinagar. The official death toll was 277. Property worth hundreds of crores destroyed.
In February 2021, a glacial burst on the Rishi Ganga in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district wrecked two major hydropower projects and killed 204 people.
A Deluge of Pilgrims Adds to Environmental Burden
This year too saw flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
The list goes on.
Telling us very clearly that global warming and its attending extreme weather events are a reality. Telling us that they do real harm, claim lives, wreck livelihoods. And yet, lessons are not learnt.
In 2014, in the aftermath of the Kedarnath disaster, a Supreme Court-appointed expert panel proposed a 'sustainable’ limit to the number of pilgrims visiting Uttarakhand’s four holy shrines or ‘char dhams’.
The panel suggested a daily limit of 5,000 people for Kedarnath, 3,500 for Yamunotri, around 4,000 for Gangotri, and 6,000 for Badrinath. The Uttarakhand government settled for a daily limit of 5,000 for Yamnotri, 9,000 for Gangotri, 15,000 for Badrinath, and 18,000 for Kedarnath. But all these limits were revoked at the start of the 2021 season. Perhaps, it was felt that collective memories of the mass deaths and destruction had faded.
Such a high number of pilgrims is considered unsustainable because it has a cascade of negative impacts on the area’s ecosystem.
Handling 18,000 pilgrims daily instead of 5,000 requires more hotels, dhabas, markets, and more public infrastructure. This leads to excessive unplanned and unsafe local construction, all of it along vulnerable riverbanks and landslide-prone hillsides. Excessive construction invariably leads to excessive local deforestation, which weakens hillsides even further.
Add to that, the fact that the Himalayas are a young mountain range, with a much higher degree of seismic activity, and therefore, far more prone to earthquakes than most other parts of the world. That the Himalayas are dotted with hundreds of glaciers that are receding ever faster, leading to the creation of hundreds of unstable high-altitude glacial lakes. That extreme weather events, such as sudden excessive rains and cloudbursts have become more frequent.
Not Much Has Changed Since The Kedarnath Disaster..
We know this was the recipe for the Kedarnath disaster in 2013. We have known before that, and certainly since then, what we must do to ensure a similar disaster is not repeated. But as we have seen, these learnings have just not been applied. Not in Kedarnath, nor in most other parts of Himalayan India.
Coming back to these Sikkim flash floods, once again the warning signals had been there. Geologists had pointed out that the glacier feeding the South Lhonak Lake had melted and receded by a kilometre since 1990. It had also been observed that since 1989, the lake had grown 2.5 times in size.
As has been mentioned in other media, some amount of excess water was siphoned out in 2016 using pipes designed by Ladakh-based ecologist Sonam Wangchuk. But that exercise was not repeated.
And so, on 4th October, after a fresh round of torrential rain, the Lhonak Lake burst its bounds, and poured into the Teesta River, wreaking havoc, and adding a new ‘disaster term’ to our vocabulary - Glacial Lake Outburst Floods or GLOF. Satellite images from ISRO show that the lake shrank from 167 to just 60 hectares within hours.
We know there is a price to be paid for our negligence. Just ask the families of anyone among the thousands who have died in flash floods and landslides in India. It really is time to give more resources and further empower our disaster management experts to do what’s needed - More resources to install early warning systems, including Doppler radars, to anticipate coming extreme weather events.
More resources to identify and keep a watch on a far larger number of vulnerable glacial lakes like the South Lhonak Lake, to drain such vulnerable glacial lakes, more commitment towards enforcing landslide mitigation, which includes identifying and strengthening vulnerable hillsides, and building water drainage channels on such hillsides. And lastly, more teeth to act against illegal irresponsible and unsafe construction in our hills.
And if we are the Vishwaguru, let’s get the world to take global warming and extreme weather events, a lot more seriously.