NEW DELHI: Nearly 50 people have died in flash floods triggered by unprecedented heavy rains in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, authorities said on Wednesday, as environmentalist warn the Himalayan region is seeing the effects of climate change and rampant development.
Incessant rain since Monday has caused flooding, landslides, and massive destruction in the state lying on the southern slope of the Himalaya mountain range, in what is a second devastating incident related to extreme weather this year. In February, a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, triggering an avalanche and flooding that killed dozens of people.
“There has been massive damage. It will take time to return to normalcy,” Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami told reporters on Wednesday. “Roads were washed away, there were landslides, rivers changed their routes, villages were affected, bridges collapsed.”
The amount of rain that fell on the region, especially its famous tourist destination and hill station Nainital was abnormal, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).
“This was an unprecedented rain at this time of the year. Normally, the monsoon is retreating at this time and chances of rain are slim, but this amount of rain is unheard of in recent history,” Dr. Rajendra Kumar Jenamani of the IMD told Arab News.
Ecologists have been warning for years that the Himalayas are warming at an alarming pace, melting ice trapped in glaciers, elevating the risk of devastating floods and landslides. Nearby populations are vulnerable, as the region’s ecosystem has also become too fragile for construction projects.
Nainital-based journalist and environmental researcher Kavita Upadhyay said the local community has not recorded incidents that had brought devastation as large as that caused by Monday and Tuesday downpours.
“We received more than 500-millimeter rainfall in 24 hours, and this is the maximum in recorded history,” she told Arab News. “When we get 60-milimeter rainfall it is called heavy rainfall, imagine the magnitude of 500 millimeters.”
Upadhyay blamed unplanned development for the disaster.
“One would hear the word ‘climate change’ but I am not an expert on that, but what we do know is that extreme weather events have been increasing,” she said. “The reason for the disaster is definitely the way development is happening in Uttarakhand. Be it roads, houses or expanding tourism, big infrastructure projects like that. I don’t think authorities have taken into account that extreme weather events will happen.”
Delhi-based environmentalist Vimlendu Jha said the extreme weather incidents occurring in Uttarakhand were an indication of a “climate crisis.”
“We cannot call it climate change because change is a moderate word. Here we are talking about the climate crisis which is causing extreme rainfall and also a lot of rainfall in a small period of time,” he said.
Referring to previous climate-related disasters in the region, Jha said in each case devastation was happening as unplanned development — including of hydroelectric power plants and roads for which thousands of trees had been cut — was causing “nature’s fury.”
“The reason why it got scaled up and extreme this time is because of the overall destruction of the local ecology,” Jha said. “These are the reason we are witnessing this kind of nature’s fury.”