India flash flood: rescuers use hands to reach trapped workers

The disaster, which has left 200 people missing, was not likely to be linked to climate change, experts said

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Emergency workers used their hands to dig through debris and slush on Monday and reach dozens of people trapped inside a tunnel after a flash flood in northern India that left as many as 171 missing.

Uttarakhand state police have confirmed that 26 people have been killed and while the missing are spread across 11 villages which were inundated by surging water levels.

Thirty five people are still stranded in waist-deep mud inside the badly hit hydroelectric power plant Tapovan. At least 1000 disaster response, military and paramilitary personnel are working to clear the 1.7 km tunnel and rescue the stranded.

The trapped men, and most of those missing, were working on two dam projects in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state when a breaking glacier sent a torrent of water through narrow gorges in the Himalayan region on Sunday. At least 18 bodies had been recovered so far, state officials said.

A portion of Nanda Devi glacier broke off, wreaking havoc in the region as it caused an avalanche and deluge after the water level of Dhauli Ganga river rose.

Hundreds of homes on the river bank were damaged and a bridge was washed away that connected 13 villages.

Television channels showed videos of a massive torrent of water barrelling through narrow canyon and sweeping away two under-construction power plants-Rishi Ganga and Tapovan.

Uttarakhand state police said 171 people were missing and 26 confirmed dead.

State police chief Ashok Kumar said emergency workers using shovels and hands to reach 34 men trapped inside a 2,500-metre-long tunnel at the site of the Tapovan dam.
"We are using all the methods to reach them," Mr Kumar said.

Bhanu Dutt Nair, in-charge of the rescue operation for the Indo-Tibetan Police Force said the rescue work will continue throughout the night.

"Rescue operation will continue throughout the night... We have been able to clear 80m of debris and slush manually and now we have pressed in excavators to speed up the work to clear the remaining 100m," he told The National.

"We are not aware of the status of the trapped workers but we hope and pray they are safe and sound."

Emergency workers were using their hands to remove the slush and so far have managed to crawl 150m into the tunnel.

Families wait for news

Hundreds of people from nearby villages have gathered near the rescue site. Families of those who are trapped inside the tunnel have travelled from different parts of the northern Uttar Pradesh state including Lakhimpur Kheri from where more than 50 workers came to work at the power plant.

Raju Singh, who worked at Tapovan power plant, is still missing. His family are desperately waiting at the site for his rescue.

"My brother has been working at this site since December and we came to know about him being trapped inside the tunnel last evening.

"We have seen visuals and heard about it during the day and unsuccessfully tried to contact him on his phone." Akshay Singh told The National.

"We were informed by the company last night and we started off in a car the very same moment. I hope my brother is safe."

The Rishi Ganga Power Plant has been completely destroyed and the entire area is filled with 20-25 feet of slush.

At least 16 people were rescued from an adjacent tunnel on Sunday.

"I was working 300 metres inside the tunnel when suddenly water came inside. I was trapped inside the tunnel from 10 am to 5 pm," said Nepalese worker Basant, who worked at Tapovan plant and was rescued by ITBP personnel.

Some workers said they had to latch on to the pipes and crown of the tunnel as water rushed in.

"We were working in the tunnel when we heard people screaming...suddenly a torrent of water came inside the tunnel. I couldn't understand what to do...I couldn't run out so I held the crown of the tunnel to save my life," another survivor told local reporters. He was later rescued by ITBP.

The fatal incident sent shockwaves through the state as it was a grim reminder of a similar cloudburst tragedy that led to flash floods in the state killing more than 5700 people eight years ago.

Was climate change to blame?

India is already suffering from erratic weather patterns triggered by climate change, including extreme heat waves, widespread drought, scant rainfall, flooding and cyclones.

Experts are investigating the incident though it is not yet clear what might have caused the glacial burst.

Climate scientists and glacial experts called it a rare incident and said an avalanche could have caused a rise in snow and ice on the glacier.

“It doesn’t look like a glacial lake outburst flood. It is a rare incident...there is no visible lake in the area," said Mohammad Farooq Azam, a specialist on glaciology and hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology.

"There is a possibility of a break of a heavy glacier above 5000-6000 metres."

The flood sparked speculation that climate change was to blame, but Milap Chand Sharma, a professor with specialisation on Glacial Geomorphology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University ruled out global warming or climate change as the cause of the event.

"This is not because of global warming as this is the coldest of the period for a glacier to grow...because of thermal dynamics some glaciers do have tendency to surge," Mr Sharma told The National.

“One possibility could be the snow avalanche two days before this event. The glacier grows because of snow fall and that may have imbalanced the marsh which collapsed due to more input. Hanging glaciers are very steep and once in 100 years there could be such an event,” he added.