Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas is sinking; cracks in homes require evacuations

Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas is sinking; cracks in homes require evacuations

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The cracks appeared late last year. The walls, ceilings and even the ground began to break. This month, several fissures widened into large fissures, and muddy water began gushing out of the ground in some places.

The town of Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas begins to sink.

Authorities evacuated hundreds of residents to public schools or hotels in other parts of the city. “There is absolute panic,” said Suraj Kaparuvan, a 38-year-old businessman.

His home was in the danger zone, authorities said, and his family was told to evacuate. Vein-like scars criss-cross the white and blue walls of all eight rooms in his two-story home, which is filled with hastily packed clothes and local boxes.

Joshimath is the latest casualty of the Himalayan region, where unchecked development collides with climate change and frequent natural disasters.

Experts say the city is a warning sign not only for India but for the entire Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain region, part of what is called “Third Pole”, which contains the world’s third largest storage of glacial ice. The third pole encompasses more than half a dozen countries, including China, and is critical to the fate of more than a billion people.

More than 700 houses in Joshimath, a town of approx 22,000 peoplehave developed cracks. Construction in the area, about 320 miles northeast of India’s capital, New Delhi, was suspended this week. The Chief Minister of the state of Uttarakhand, where Joshimath is located, announced that the towns would be audited to ensure that they are addressing both environmental and economic needs.

In 2021, the area experienced a deadly flood after a piece of rock and a hanging glacier fell down a steep slope. The disaster worsened as floods encountered infrastructure barriers, accelerated speed and debris, and killed more than 80 people. Experts said climate change may have contributed to the disaster, and studies have found that Himalayan glaciers are melting dramatically and at a much faster rate than in the 20th century.

Deadly floods in India point to a looming climate crisis in the Himalayas

There are many reasons why the earth is sinking, although it is usually the result of human activity. Land subsidence can occur when groundwater that holds the land is removed from certain rocks. When the water disappears, the rock “falls in on itself,” writes the US Geological Surveywhich also notes that activities such as underground mining can contribute to subsidence.

“We are messing up the environment to an extent that is irreversible,” said Anjal Prakash, who researches climate change and sustainability at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Local authorities declined to give a specific cause for the subsidence in Joshimath, which is in an earthquake-prone area, saying scientists were investigating. But Prakash noted that hydroelectric and other major infrastructure projects are being built within the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas without considering the ecology. (Uttarakhand’s glacier-fed rivers make it an attractive area for hydroelectric projects, eight of which were under construction in 2020)

Climate change acts as a force multiplier and “will make everything worse,” said Prakash, who has contributed to reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“No one is really sure” about what is happening, said Piyush Rautela, executive director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority. The immediate cause of the recent large cracks, he said, appears to be a breach in an underground water reservoir that is forcing muddy water out of the ground.

“As the water washes away the finer materials from the debris, the ground is sinking,” he said, adding that construction has exceeded the ground’s capacity.

As experts investigate, residents like tourism worker Durga Saklani, 52, live amid apocalyptic scenes. Tiles in his recently built home have started popping, doors won’t close and walls are sinking, he said.

“The sounds of the popping still ring in my ears every night,” he said.

Many residents blame the hydroelectric project in the vicinity of the city, which is behind the national government. They claim the blasting and tunnel drilling broke an underground flow and made the ground unstable.

NTPC, the state-owned power company behind the project, did not respond to a request for comment. But on Indian Express newspaper said it denied the allegations and said its tunnel did not pass under Joshimath. Explosive works are not taking place, the company announced.

Prakash Negi, a 45-year-old resident, said locals were opposed to the power project. When people first reported damage to their homes last year, the government did nothing, he said.

His house has slight cracks, but he’s afraid of what’s next.

“We’ve lived here for generations,” Negi said. “If this keeps happening, where are we going to go?”

Located at an altitude of 6,151 feet, Joshimath sits on the debris of an old landslide. The town grew rapidly as it became a key resting place for thousands of pilgrims traveling further up the mountain range to important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites.

Half of Earth’s glaciers could melt even if main warming target is met, study says

Cracks and signs of subsidence also appeared in Joshimath in the 1970s, but this time the scale of the damage was much greater, experts familiar with the topography said.

The current crisis is the result of a “failure of governance,” said geologist Yaspal Sundriyal, a professor at Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Uttarakhand.

He suggested that the authorities demolish high-rise buildings and damaged houses, which will reduce the pressure on the land. People should not be allowed to build new homes in unstable areas and hydroelectric projects should not be built in the higher Himalayan region, he added.

“We need to have strict rules and regulations and timely enforcement of those rules,” he said. “We are not against development, but not at the cost of disasters.”

Residents left homeless overnight say their future is bleak. Kaparuvan, the businessman, had left Joshimath and was working in the bigger cities. But he said he came back to support the local economy. He runs a small hotel and set up a laundry business in November with a $25,000 bank loan.

“Now [laundromat’s] the ground has a two-foot hole,” he said. “I can’t see my future anymore.”

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