At first, it looked like a gigantic shadow in the sky. Before Bhawan Rana, the village head of Raini village in the northern Indian hill state of Uttarakhand, could understand what was happening, he saw heaps of dirt rolling down the hills.
“That was when I realised what had happened, and sounded an alert for evacuation,” Rana told VICE World News, recounting how he witnessed the Himalayan glacier burst on Sunday.
A chunk of the Himalayan Nanda Devi glacier broke off, triggering an avalanche and flash floods that destroyed two hydropower plants. At least 28 people have died and more than 200 are missing.
Rana and his family live in a village about 50 meters away from one of the projects. He is part of an indigenous community that had sounded an alarm over the project in 2019 by filing a public interest litigation. Their petition, a copy of which has been shared with VICE World News, highlighted the possible damage to the ecologically sensitive Nanda Devi biosphere park, and the potential impact the plant’s blasting and stone crushing activities would have on the environment.
“Our biggest fear came true,” said Rana. Many members of his community have retreated into the nearby forest, fearing the flood situation getting worse.
“Officials running the hydropower plant cut vast areas of trees and would dump the run-off mud into the river, instead of disposing it upstream as per environmental norms,” Sangram Singh, a contract worker from the community who was one of the petitioners, told VICE World News. Singh said locals were most worried about landslides and flash floods, following the 2013 Kedarnath disaster in the same area that killed 169 people. Roughly 4,000 are still missing and are presumed dead.
The court had asked local authorities to respond to the allegations raised in the litigation and investigate the effects of stone crushing activity on the environment, ultimately banning the use of explosives in the area.
“But despite our protests and alarms, they did not pay heed to us and allowed the company to operate,” said Singh, adding that blasting activities at the hydropower plant could have over time contributed to the melting glacier. Singh also speculated the presence of a radioactive weapon near the glacier that may have caused it to burst.
In July, 52 environmental organisations and activists across 12 Himalayan states of India, drafted a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, highlighting how regulatory decisions and industrial projects could cause ecological damage in the world’s youngest mountain range. “The government has classified the Himalayan region under the climate vulnerability index. It means that any project in the region would exacerbate landslides, groundwater drying up, and glaciers melting,” Manshi Asher, an activist from Himdhara Environmental Research and Action Collective, and one of the 52 signatories to the letter, told VICE World News in September.
Meanwhile, experts speculate that the glacial burst is an effect of climate change. “We identified 26 lakes which had the potential to form flash floods in a 2019 study,” Anil Kulkarni, a glaciologist and professor from the Indian Institute of Science, told VICE World News. “When we ran our model on the Nanda Devi glacier following the disaster, we realised that a huge depression had formed near the glacier’s terminus (the point where it ends). Under appropriate pressure, this huge lake could have broken out and caused the massive floods.”
For communities from the Raini village, the only way forward from the destruction they have witnessed is through financial compensation and responsible development of the region that follows environmental norms. “We saw the apathy of nature, and lost many members of our community in the process,” said Singh. “We can’t let this happen again.”