Asia Editor's Picks Latest South Asia Top Stories

19 dead, over 200 missing as glacier burst triggers flash floods in India

NEW DELHI, India: At least 19 people are dead and more than 150 missing after a glacier burst in India’s northern Uttarakhand state Sunday and crashed through two hydroelectric projects, triggering deadly flash floods along the river.

Footage of the disaster showed a fast-moving avalanche of dust, rock and water barreling through the narrow gorge in Chamoli district, in the Himalayan state, and sweeping away parts of a dam as well as buildings, trees and people in its path. Those living further down the river were urged to evacuate from the rising waters.

Rescue teams worked throughout the night to find survivors and recover bodies. Fifteen people trapped in a tunnel were rescued on Monday, according to Chamoli District Police, though rescuers are now focusing on a second tunnel which is blocked with debris.

Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said at a press conference on Sunday that a tunnel at the state-owned NTPC hydro project was clogged with debris from the avalanche triggered by the glacial burst.

“Uttarakhand has witnessed a terrible disaster,” Rawat said, adding that the state is expecting “a significant loss to human lives and infrastructure.”

Indian Army and members from India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been assisting rescue efforts, and more NDRF teams are being airlifted from New Delhi and expected to arrive on Monday.

“This was a one-time incident. The glacier broke, and with it a portion on the mountain- boulders and debris all came down and flooded the power project here … There are two locations here which have been damaged heavily,” said Ashok Kumar, a senior official with the Uttarakhand police to local reporters Monday morning.

From the two projects, a total of 153 people are missing, he added.

The avalanche completely inundated the Rishiganga Power project — a smaller hydroelectric dam on the river in Chamoli. Those living alongside the Alaknanda River were urged to flee to safety, but stay calm.

The minister said of the total 35 people working at the plant, “roughly 29 to 30 people are missing.”

Flash floods then surged five kilometres downstream on the Dhauli Ganga river and impacted a much larger hydro project owned by the NTPC, Rawat said. Some 176 labourers were working on that project, which has two tunnels, the minister said.

“Roughly 15 people” managed to get out of one tunnel after getting word of the avalanche on their mobile devices, Rawat said, adding that 35 to 50 workers had been rescued and returned to the NTPC plant.

Videos on social media showed water surging through a small dam site, washing away from construction equipment and bringing down small bridges.

“Everything was swept away, people, cattle and trees,” Sangram Singh Rawat, a former village council member of Raini, the site closest to the glacier, told local media.

Some 400 soldiers have been deployed to the site in the remote mountains, state authorities said.

Members of the humanitarian organisation the Indian Red Cross Society were also present at the site, and “actively participating” with relief efforts, spokeswoman Neeru Petwal told Al Jazeera via Skype.

“We expect to carry on operations for the next 24 to 48 hours,” said Satya Pradhan, the chief of the National Disaster Response Force.