GANGTOK, India — Rescuers found more bodies overnight as they dug through muddy rubble and icy water in search of survivors after a glacial lake burst through a dam in India’s northeastern Himalayas, washing away homes and bridges and killing thousands of people forced to flee.
Officials said hundreds of rescuers recovered six more bodies early Saturday, bringing the death toll to 47. At least 150 people are still missing.
The flooding began shortly after midnight on Wednesday when water from a glacial lake overflowed and breached the largest hydroelectric dam in Sikkim state. The icy water then flowed through towns in the valley below, killing dozens of people and carrying some bodies miles downstream, where they were found in neighboring West Bengal state and Bangladesh, police said.
Disasters caused by landslides and floods are common in India’s Himalayan region during the monsoon season from June to September. Scientists say they are becoming more common as global warming contributes to the melting of glaciers there.
Police said nearly 4,000 tourists were stranded in two locations, Lachung and Lachen in the northern part of the state, where access was severely restricted as floods had washed away roads. But bad weather has made rescue efforts more challenging as authorities cannot deploy helicopters to help those trapped in vulnerable areas.
About 3,900 people were currently in 26 relief camps set up by the state, Prime Minister Prem Singh Tamang said on Saturday. Of the 23 Indian Army soldiers reported missing earlier, one had been rescued and eight had been killed, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said, adding that search operations were underway.
It was not clear what caused the deadly flood in the mountainous state of Sikkim, the latest to hit northeast India in a year of unusually heavy monsoon rains. Nearly 50 people were killed in flash floods and landslides in nearby Himachal Pradesh state in August. In July, record rains killed more than a hundred people in northern India in two weeks.
Experts pointed to intense rain and a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck nearby Nepal on Tuesday afternoon as possible causes.
But the disaster also underlines a climate dilemma pitting local environmentalists who say dams in the Himalayas are too dangerous against authorities pursuing a national green energy agenda.
The design and installation of the 6-year-old Teesta 3 dam, the largest in the state of Sikkim, was controversial from the time it was built. A 2019 report prepared by the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority identified Lhonak Lake as “highly vulnerable” to floods that could breach dams and cause extensive damage to life and property.
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Despite the risks to dams posed by the increasing frequency of extreme weather, India’s federal government aims to increase hydroelectric dam production in India by half to 70,000 megawatts by 2030.
Prakash Chetri, an employee of the Teesta 3 dam operator, was working at the site when he and others were told that the water level was rising and they had to evacuate. Nearly an hour later “we saw a lot of water – the whole dam was filled with water,” he said, adding that although he was lucky to escape, fourteen others working with him were still missing. “I ran to save my life… at those moments I thought this was the last day of my life,” Chetri said.
Eleven bridges in the Lachen Valley were washed away by the floodwaters, which also hit pipelines and damaged or destroyed more than 270 houses in four districts, officials said Friday.
Several towns, including Dikchu and Rangpo in the Teesta basin, were flooded and schools in four districts had to remain closed until Sunday, the state education department said. The floods also hit several army camps, leaving vehicles covered in mud, according to images released by the Indian army.
According to a report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, Himalayan glaciers could lose 80% of their volume if global warming is not controlled.
Last month, dam breaches caused by Storm Daniel caused devastating damage to the city of Derna in Libya.
In February 2021, flash floods killed nearly 200 people and washed away homes in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India.