NEW DELHI — At least 14 people were killed and 102 are missing after heavy rains caused a Himalayan glacial lake in northeast India to burst its banks, and rescuers were being hampered by washed out bridges and fast-flowing rivers, officials said Thursday.
Lhonak Lake in Sikkim state burst its banks on Wednesday causing major flooding, which authorities said had affected the lives of 22,000 people. It is the latest deadly weather event in South Asia’s mountains being blamed on climate change.
“The search operations are being undertaken under conditions of incessant rains, fast-flowing water in Teesta river, roads and bridges washed away at many places,” a defense spokesperson said.
As of early Thursday, the state disaster management agency said 26 people were injured and 102 were missing, 22 of whom were army personnel. Eleven bridges had been washed away.
Cars lie submerged in the town of Rangpo on Thursday. Prakash Adhikari / AP
Video footage from the ANI news agency showed floodwaters surging into built-up areas where several houses collapsed, army bases and other facilities were damaged and vehicles submerged.
Satellite imagery showed that nearly two-thirds of the lake seems to have been drained.
The weather department warned of landslides and disruption to flights as more rain is expected over the next two days in parts of Sikkim and neighboring states. Sikkim was cut off from Siliguri in West Bengal as the main highway had collapsed.
G T Dhungel, a member of the Sikkim Legislative Assembly, told Reuters that gas and diesel had already become scarce in the state capital, Gangtok, but food was easily available.
A cloudburst dropped a huge amount of rain over a short period on the Lhonak glacial lake on Wednesday, setting off flash floods down the Teesta valley, about 93 miles north of Gangtok near the border with China.
A 2020 report by India’s national disaster management agency said glacial lakes are growing and pose a potentially large risk to downstream infrastructure and life as the glaciers in the Himalayas are in a retreating phase due to climate change.
“Sadly, this is the latest in a series of deadly flash floods that ricocheted across the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region this monsoon, bringing the reality of this region’s extreme vulnerability to climate change all too vividly alive,” said Pema Gyamtsho, director general of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.
Residents being evacuated on a backhoe on Wednesday in Muguthang. AFP – Getty Images
Other mountainous areas of India, as well as parts of neighboring Pakistan and Nepal, have been hit by torrential rains, flooding and landslides in recent months, killing scores of people.
An article by India’s National Remote Sensing Centre scientists a decade ago had warned that the chance of the lake bursting its banks was “very high” at 42%.
Wednesday’s disaster was worse than a 1968 lake breach in Sikkim as it involved the release of dam water from state-run NHPC’s Teesta V dam, according to officials.
NHPC said it will assess the damage when the water level recedes to normal.