NEW DELHI (AP) — A glacial lake that overflowed in India’s Himalayan northeast, breaking through a major dam and sending deadly, ice cold floodwaters through towns, had been identified by state officials, researchers and environmental activists as dangerous years before the disaster.
The flood killed at least 31 people, officials said Friday, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
It began shortly after midnight Wednesday, when Lhonak Lake overflowed after a heavy rainfall. Waters from the high mountain lake crashed into the Teesta-3 dam, the largest in the state of Sikkim, cracking its concrete before cascading through towns in the Lachan Valley below and sweeping away people, houses, roads and bridges.
It was the latest deadly flood to hit northeast India in a year of unusually heavy monsoon rains. Nearly 50 people died in flash floods and landslides in August in nearby Himachal Pradesh state, and record rains in Northern India killed more than 100 people over two weeks in July.
The design and placement of the 6-year-old dam were controversial from the time it was built, part of an Indian push to expand hydropower energy. Local activists argued that extreme weather caused by climate changes makes dam-building in the Himalayas too dangerous, and warned that the dam’s design didn’t include enough safety measures.
A report compiled by the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority in 2019 had identified the lake the dam was built to contain as “highly vulnerable” to flooding that could cause extensive damage to life and property in downstream areas, warning of the risk of flash floods that could break through dams.
The dam’s operator, and local agencies responsible for dam safety, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Lhonak Lake has been rising quickly over recent years, as the glaciers that feed it melt faster due to climate change. A 2021 study by researchers in India, the United States and Switzerland warned that rising waters, and the steep slopes that surround the lake, made a catastrophic flood more likely.
The Teesta 3 hydropower project, built on the Teesta River, took nine years and cost $1.5 billion to construct. The project was capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1.5 million Indian homes — and began operations in 2017.
“Despite being the biggest project in the state, there were no early warning systems installed even though the glacier overflowing was a known risk,” said Himanshu Thakkar of the non-governmental organization South Asian Network for Rivers, Dams and People.
According to a release from India’s National Disaster Management Agency Friday, they plan to set up early warning systems for real-time alerts at most of India’s 56 known at-risk glacial lakes.
Thakkar said authorities failed to apply the lessons from a 2021 dam breach in Himalayan state of Uttarakhand that killed 81 people, allowing an “eerily similar” disaster to occur.
In 2021, the Indian federal government passed a dam safety law that requires operators and local governments to plan for emergencies, but the Teesta-3 dam is not listed as being monitored for safety by India’s chief dam regulator, the Central Water Commission.
“We knew that this was coming,” said Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta, an environmental organization based in Sikkim. “The same can happen with other dams also,” he wrote, in a statement that called for a safety review of all dams in the state.
It wasn’t clear what triggered the breach Wednesday.
Experts and varying government reports have pointed to sudden, intense rains in the area, and a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck nearby Nepal on Tuesday afternoon.
More than 2,000 people were rescued after Wednesday’s floods, the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority said in a statement, adding that state authorities set up 26 relief camps for more than 22,000 people impacted by the floods.
Rescue workers were still searching for nearly 100 missing people, including 22 soldiers, on Thursday, according to the Sikkim state government.
Eleven bridges in the Lachan Valley were washed away by the floodwaters, which also hit pipelines and damaged or destroyed more than 270 houses in four districts, officials said.
Several towns, including Dikchu and Rangpo in the Teesta basin, were flooded, and schools in four districts were ordered shut until Sunday, the state’s education department said.
The Press Trust of India news agency cited a statement by neighboring West Bengal state as saying that the bodies of four soldiers were found. However, it wasn’t immediately clear whether they were among the 22 missing soldiers, or had died separately.
One soldier who had been reported missing on Wednesday was later rescued by authorities, the army said in a statement.
The army is providing medical aid and phone connectivity to civilians in the areas of Chungthang, Lachung and Lachen in north Sikkim, the army statement said.
Despite risks to dams due to increasing frequency of extreme weather, the Indian federal government aims to increase India’s hydroelectric dam output by half, to 70,000 megawatts, by 2030.
Disasters caused by landslides and floods are common in India’s Himalayan region during the June-September monsoon season. Scientists say they are becoming more frequent as global warming contributes to the melting of glaciers there.
Last month, dam breaches caused by Storm Daniel caused devastating damage to the city of Derna in Libya.
Arasu reported from Bengaluru, India.
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