Indian authorities are searching for more than 150 people missing in a flood that was believed to have been caused by a breach in a Himalayan glacier as experts pointed to the impact of climate change in the region.
Water, sludge and debris careened down the Rishiganga river in the state of Uttarakhand on Sunday, crashing through at least two hydropower plants and sweeping away workers and locals in its path.
Officials have confirmed more than 10 deaths and at least 150 people remain unaccounted for, with dozens of workers thought to be trapped in tunnels in the plants.
Disaster response personnel and security forces were searching for the missing on Monday while teams of scientists travelled to the region to determine the cause of the surge.
While the trigger for the flooding was unclear, experts believe it could have been the result of a glacial lake bursting its banks. Some raised the possibility that it was a mudflow, possibly sparked by an avalanche.
They pointed to the region’s increasingly fragile ecosystem, as climate change has melted glaciers high in the Himalayan mountains that feed the Ganges river system.
This puts downstream communities at risk and disrupts the water supplies on which hundreds of millions living in India’s northern plains depend.
“It’s well established that there’s a huge impact of climate change on glaciers and it’s on the verge of reaching the tipping point,” said Samrat Sengupta, climate change programme director at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “Almost the whole economy of north India depends on this perennial river system.”
Sengupta said not enough was known about the effects of rising temperatures on Himalayan glaciers.
“India should be more worried. All our infrastructural investment, either agriculture or power, is based on this perennial river system water supply,” he said. “We should be more invested in research to understand what damage has happened.”
Others pointed to the risk that excess construction in the region was destabilising the ecosystem.
Kundan Singh, whose nephew from a nearby village was missing, told the Times of India newspaper: “What happened today was nature’s way of telling us things are horribly wrong.”
Thousands of people died in Uttarakhand in 2013 by severe flooding sparked by intense rain in one of India’s worst natural disasters in recent years.
Authorities said there was limited risk of further flooding after Sunday’s surge.
“Rescue operations are ongoing in full swing and we are hoping to save more lives,” Trivendra Singh Rawat, chief minister of Uttarakhand, wrote on Twitter.
Maharaj Pandit, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Delhi, said: “We’ve shown that the Himalayas is one of the more rapidly warming mountain regions in the world.”
“Given ongoing climate change, a large number of precariously perched glaciers, glacial lakes and other water bodies are absolutely ready to burst even when a little water gets deposited in there,” he added.