Rescuers Digging for Trapped Hydroelectric Workers


Last week, a portion of a Himalayan glacier broke off in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, sending a rush of water and debris down the mountain and trapping 37 nearby power plant workers.

Since the incident, reports indicate that the disaster has caused at least 58 fatalities, with more than 170 people still missing.

What Happened

On Sunday (Feb. 7), a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier in the Himalayas broke off, releasing the water trapped behind it. As a result, floodwater rushed down the mountain, through other bodies of water and into the mountain valleys of the Rishiganga River and others, destroying everything in its path and causing a variety of local villages to evacuate.

The resulting damages from the avalanche-like flood included the complete destruction of a hydroelectric plant on the Alaknanda, the complete destruction of a nearby dam, a second dam was also damaged, a plant under construction on the Dhauliganga was damaged, bridges and many homes were also reported to have been washed downstream.

However, not all the area’s hydropower projects were affected, as authorities were able to save other power units farther downstream thanks to quick actions taken to release water by opening gates.

According to The Associated Press, workers trapped because of the disaster were working at the Dhauliganga power plant. Vivek Pandey, an Indo Tibetan Border Police spokesperson reported that 165 people who were working at both the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga plants were still missing (not including those trapped in the tunnel). At the time of the report, 26 bodies were recovered.

However, a senior government official noted that no one knew the actual total number of people who were working on the projects. “The number of missing people can go up or come down,” S. A. Murugesan said.

During rescue efforts that same day, teams were able to save 12 workers from a separate tunnel at Dhauliganga, where they were then transported to a hospital to recover.

“We thought it might be rain and that the water will recede. But when we saw mud and debris enter with great speed, we realized something big had happened,” said one of the rescued workers, Rakesh Bhatt.

Bhatt noted that while trapped, another worker was able to contact officials using his cell phone.

“We waited for almost six hours—praying to God and joking with each other to keep our spirits high. I was the first to be rescued and it was a great relief,” he said.

As for the 37 other workers still trapped in a separate tunnel, crews have deployed heavy equipment to help clear the way through a 1.5-mile-long tunnel. The workers have been out of contact since the disaster struck.

“The tunnel is filled with debris, which has come from the river. We are using machines to clear the way,” said H. Gurung, a senior official of the paramilitary Indo Tibetan Border Police.

Other rescue efforts have involved authorities taking boats downstream to search for bodies, walking down riverbanks and location scanning. Food was also airdropped to roughly 13 nearby villages where roads had been completely blocked off, trapping another estimated 2,500 people.

Yesterday (Feb. 16), The Hindu reported that the death toll had risen from 26 to 58, with the identities of 31 of the deaceased established thus far. The Uttarakhand Director General of Police, Ashok Kumar, noted that all recue operations in the affected areas were contuing and that the work of digging out bodies from under the debris would be completed in three to four days.

However, operations are planned to continue until the last person is located.

A resuce team comprised of the country's Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the National Disaster Response Force and the State Disaster Response Force personnel have cleared over 145 meters (over 475 feet) of the Tapovan tunnel that was filled with sluge and debris following the disaster.

Investigation & Ignored Warnings

The following day, a team of scientists were flown to the site to investigate what happened. Although, experts are already putting the blame on climate change as a contributing factor. Specifically, a contributor to the U.N.-sponsored research on global warming and research director and adjunct professor at the Indian School of Business, Anjal Prakash, said that while data on the cause of the disaster was not yet available, “this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming.”

Prakash isn’t the only one to make these assumptions. The New York Times reported that scientists have been warning about the state of the Himalayas for many years, pointing to its melting ice that’s been long trapped in glaciers, in addition to the soil and rocks, which elevate the risk of devastating floods and landslides.

The World Bank has also warned about quickly living could be diminished for up to 800 million people living in South Asia due to climate change. Unfortunately, these effects are already being observed in large parts of the Himalayan belt, which witnesses the depletion of its roughly 15,000 glaciers at a rate of 100-200 feet per decade.

Due to the rapidly melting ice, glacial lakes have formed and can break unexpectedly. Intergovernmental group, The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, has warned that a variety of glacial lakes in Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan are imminently dangerous.

However, despite the warnings, Indian government officials overrode objections when deciding to build the series of hydroelectric power plants and dams in the area. What’s worse, is local residents told The Times that no one had been prepared for the possible disaster.

“There was no program or training in the village about disaster management by the government,” said Bhawan Singh Rana, head of the Raini village, hit by some of the worst damage. “Our village is on a rock, and we fear that it may slide anytime.”

The villagers were also reported to have protested against the projects, fearing that officials were right and that the blasting of rocks would cause deadly landslides.

“We used to hear blasting and see the rocks shift,” Rana said. “When this project was under construction, half of our village slid. We requested to be shifted from here to another place. The government said they would do it, but it never happened.”

In the case of what occurred in Uttarakhand, while an investigation has been launched, Ranjeet Rath, the head of India’s geological survey, said initial information suggested a “glacial calving at highest altitude.” Calving is the breaking of ice chunks from a glacier’s edge.

Although, when scientists looked at the satellite imagery from before and after the disaster, it didn’t appear that the flooding was caused by a glacial lake bursting, as no such lake was visible in the images. Instead, more sophisticated predictions point to the possible collapse of a rock slope that could have broken up part of a glacier.

Umesh K. Haritashya , a scientist who studies glacial hazards at the University of Dayton in Ohio weighed in as well, predicting that the rock slope could have dammed the river temporarily, which then created a lake and later broke apart.

“Basically it’s a landslide that is some fraction rock, and some fraction ice,” concluded Dan Shugar, a geomorphologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta. “A lot of the ice melted. And it might have picked up a lot more.”


Tagged categories: Accidents; AS; Bridges; Disasters; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; India; Locks and dams; Power; Power; Power Plants

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