Landslides, floods kill at least 31 . . .
Landslides and floods in the northwestern Indian state of Uttarakhand have claimed 31 lives since Sunday, with at least 197 still missing. Most of the victims were workers on two hydroelectric dam projects that were swept away in the deluge. Attention is now focused on workers trapped inside tunnels that were blocked off during the disaster. Scientists suggest that the direct cause was a detached portion of a glacier, which precipitated a landslide, melting the surrounding ice and generating floods. Road access for at least 13 villages has been cut, necessitating airdrops of humanitarian relief, and rescue teams have been dispatched for rescue and recovery efforts.
Scientists point to climate change, precarious geology . . .
Experts have long worried that a combination of climate change and Uttarakhand’s unique hilly geography would be contributing risk factors to potential disasters. Since 1991, there has been a 0.66-degree Celsius increase in temperature in the northwestern Himalayan region, contributing to glacial melt and the thawing of permafrost, which has destabilized mountain slopes. The state has suffered climate change-linked natural disasters in the past, including the 2013 floods that killed more than 5,000 people. The two dams destroyed in this week’s disaster were also damaged in recent years by flooding. Government-appointed scientists and a Supreme Court-appointed expert committee warned in a 2014 report that dams should not be built in the para-glacial zone, where the two lost dams this week were located.
Destroyed dams part of contested Himalayan development . . .
While there is not yet direct evidence that the dam construction projects contributed to the disaster, residents and environmental groups have opposed their development and other infrastructure projects for years, staging protests and filing a court case in 2019. They claim that deforestation and blasting done to clear construction zones have caused considerable environmental damage that harms local ecosystems and imperils human settlements. However, both the national and Uttarakhand governments have argued in favour of more dams and roads, citing a need for economic development, access to remote temples, and military access to the contested India-China border.