After a Himalayan glacier broke and smashed into a dam early on Sunday, with floods forcing the evacuation of villages downstream, as many as 150 people were presumed dead in northern India.
The exact number has not yet been verified,” Om Prakash, chief secretary of the Uttarakhand state where the incident occurred, told Reuters, “but 100 to 150 people were feared dead.
As an avalanche swept down a river gorge, a witness reported a wall of dust, rock and water.
“It was very quick, there was no time for anyone to be alerted,” Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives in the upper reaches of the village of Raini, told Reuters on the phone. “I felt that we might even be swept away.”
Locals fear that workers working on a nearby hydro-power project have been washed downstream, as well as villagers searching for firewood or grazing their livestock along the dam, Rana said. “How many people are missing, we have no idea.”
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, said he was closely watching the situation.
He said on Twitter after speaking to the state chief minister, “India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there.”
The federal government said India’s air force was equipped to assist with rescue operations, while Home Minister Amit Shah said emergency response teams were being airlifted in to assist with relief and rescue.
“Shah said on Twitter, referring to Uttarakhand by its nickname, the Hindi term for “land of the gods,” because of the numerous Hindu temples and pilgrimage centres located across the state. “All the officers involved are operating on a war base.
The neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, the most populated in India, also put its riverside regions on high alert.
The river washing away portions of the dam and whatever else was in its course was seen by videos posted by locals.
Social media footage that Reuters was unable to check immediately showed water surging into a tiny dam site, sweeping away construction equipment.
“Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said on Twitter, “The flow of the Alaknanda River beyond Nandprayag [stretch] has become natural.
“The river’s water level is now one metre higher than normal, but the flow is decreasing.”
Uttarakhand is vulnerable to flash flooding and landslides in the Himalayas. Record rainfall triggered catastrophic flooding in June 2013 that took close to 6,000 lives.
Due to the torrents of water unleashed in the mountainous region, which sent mud and rocks crashing down, swallowing homes, washing away houses, roads and bridges, the tragedy was called the “Himalayan tsunami” by the media.
The construction of a power plant in the region was criticised by Uma Bharti, India’s former water resources minister and a senior leader of Modi’s party.
“I asked for the Himalaya to be a very sensitive place when I was a minister, so power projects should not be built on the Ganga and its main tributaries,” she said on Twitter, referring to the main river flowing from the mountain.