Sikkim Floods - A Man-made Disaster
State isolated as it still reels under the aftermath
In India’s North-eastern state of Sikkim, the situation post the flash floods continues to be devastating, according to the residents and environmental activists there.
On October 4, heavy rains caused the glacial South Lhonak lake in Sikkim, to breach its banks, causing a glacial lake outburst flood in Teesta River. The flood reached the Teesta III Dam at Chungthang midnight, before its gates could be opened, destroying the dam in minutes.
More than 40 people have died and hundreds are missing, according to the latest reports. While the people of Sikkim are isolated due to floods with no electricity and internet connection, the disappointment of the people from the government is also visible.
Speaking at an online press conference by Youth for Himalaya, an autonomous platform that represents people’s movements from different Himalayan, trans-Himalayan, and North-East regions of India, Gyatso Lepcha, one of the leaders of the movement called Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) said that the residents, including him do not have an internet connection due to the floods.
Explaining the situation in Sikkim, he said that the dam site is heavily affected. “The towns near the river are all washed out. We haven’t been able to actually access the loss of life and property as of now. It will take 10 to 20 days more to understand this devastation,” Lepcha said.
According to the state government, the reason for the floods is being pointed towards the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) at South Lhonak glacial lake.
Sikkim Chief Minister’s office has called the disaster an “unexpected natural calamity”. The National Disaster Management Authority said the sudden surge was the combined effect of excess rainfall and GLOF, at the Lhonak glacial lake.
Glacial lake outburst floods can occur when lakes formed due to melting glaciers breach their capacities, either due to sudden heavy rainfall or their natural embankments giving way after landslides or earthquakes.
However, Lepcha said that calling it a “natural disaster” is the government's way of running away from the truth. “The narrative that they are setting is that it is a natural disaster. They are completely hiding the part where the dam was the major reason why this happened. They are showing this as a Lhonak Lake glacier outburst, but we have to understand why the Lonak lake had an outburst,” he said.
Environmental experts believe that it is imperative to understand how the disaster, which is still plaguing the area, “got fuelled by the series of dams built on the Teesta River”.
“The 1200 MW Teesta III was completely washed away. This dam was built only 30 km away from Lhonak Lake. The current government is blaming the previous government for substandard construction.
“The previous government is blaming GLOF but nobody is questioning the construction of the dam in such a fragile area. This disaster is not a natural disaster and we are now demanding accountability plus cancellation of the proposed Teesta IV dam,” Lepcha added.
Due to the massive destruction the only highway connecting the state to the rest of India was damaged, making relief and rescue work challenging.
Thousands of people are stranded and currently placed in 26 relief camps set up by the state, Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang had said. He added that seven out of the 22 Indian army soldiers who were reported missing, had died.
According to a report by the Scroll, Sikkim has 694 glacial lakes. The South Lhonak, which is situated at 5,200 metres above sea level, is one of the 21 lakes identified by a 2021 scientific study as “potentially dangerous with a high outburst probability”.
Local activists like Lepcha and environmental experts, however, are questioning the “natural phenomena” of the outburst.
A 2020 report by the National Disaster Management Authority, while comparing potentially critical lakes in the Himalayan region, had noted that the “threat to hydropower is the highest in Sikkim”. Meaning, the government knew the dams built on the Teesta River were under threat from the South Lhonak lake, according to the Scroll report.
The catastrophe was also blamed on climate change by scientists. Last year, flooding in Sikkim killed at least 24 people and displaced thousands. Glacial lake bursts have been happening in the Himalayan regions since the past few years more frequently.
However, despite the climate change, a study revealed that scientists had warned about the glacial lake outburst in Sikkim back in 2021.
“Owing to the recent developments in terms of infrastructure and human settlements within the mountainous regions of the Himalaya, the existence of glacial lakes in the high altitude of the Himalaya has become a major concern to the downstream communities,’ the study - Future Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) hazard of the South Lhonak Lake, Sikkim Himalaya stated.
The Himalaya's glacial melt has accelerated due to rising global temperatures. Additionally, the outburst may have been nudged by a sudden cloudburst and earthquake that struck a day earlier in neighboring Nepal, according to experts.
Activists also believe that the flood's impact and intensity were exacerbated severely by the dams on river Teesta triggering a cascading effect downstream. Tonnes of concrete muck were discharged as the massive Teesta III dam collapsed under the weight of the flood, compounding the flood’s ferocity.
The largest hydropower project in Sikkim, the 1,200 MW Teesta III, is also culpable for storing high water levels and the failure to open the spillways to control the situation.
Meanwhile, Scroll reported that the danger of an outburst at the South Lhonak lake damaging hydropower projects had been flagged at a 2021 meeting of the standing committee on water resources.
Activists raised concerns over the construction of dams. “Dams are force multipliers in times of disasters. Most casualties occur near dam sites,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), explained.
He further said that dam authorities at Chungthang were informed by ITBP, after which the authorities had an hour to open up the spill gates of the dam.
“Electronically operated takes minutes to open. Even hydro mechanical gates take only about 15 minutes to open. There is clearly no accountability of bodies like the CWC,” he said.
The CWC or Central Water Commission, is entrusted with the general responsibilities of initiating, coordinating and furthering in consultation of the state governments concerned, schemes for control, conservation and utilization of water resources throughout the country, for the purpose of flood control, irrigation, navigation, drinking water supply and hydro power development.
Speaking about the Dam Safety Act (2021), Thakkar said that it only looks at the structural integrity of the dams and does not talk about the operational integrity.
“Safety audits need to be a public exercise. In the case of the decades-old dams that have become structurally weak over time,” Thakkar said, adding that the DSA 2021 was to include decommissioning of dams but that was later omitted from the law.
"There will have to be public pressure to decommission the aged dams which pose a threat,” Thakkar said.
Meanwhile, similar occurrences were reported earlier this year in other Himalayan regions, starting with the announcement of the Joshimath land subsidence crisis in January, the Doda land subsidence crisis in February, the landslides caused by the monsoon in Himachal.
Experts emphasised that despite early warnings from the local communities living in the area, significant dam development, road widening projects, the promotion of uncontrolled tourism, and rapid concretization resulting in land use change have gone ahead in the Himalayas leading to such disasters.
Sunder Negi from #NoMeansNo movement in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur said that the construction of hydro power projects and dams have resulted in an influx of landslides in the region.
“We witnessed two major landslides in Nigulsari and Batseri in 2021 that took the lives of 30 people. This year we witnessed a landslide in the same area as before, at NH-05 near Nigulsari.
“It was during the peak time of transportation of apples to the markets. The people of Kinnaur are primarily dependent upon apple farming for their livelihood. But due to this landslide, Kinnaur was cut off for so many days and we had to transport our produce via Kaza which is twice as long. Everyone says these disasters have been occurring in the region,” he said.
Negi is part of a larger protest in Kinnaur against the proposed 804-megawatt Jangi Thopan Powari project (JTP HEP). “If we know that the region is prone to disasters then why build all these dams without considering the local population,” he asked.
Meanwhile, according to a statement by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), one of the two solar-powered twin-camera and automated weather stations installed at two high-risk glacial lakes in Sikkim stopped transmitting signals after three days of installation in September.
These were installed by two NDMA-led multi-agency teams on September 16, days before excess rainfall and a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) led to a flash flood in north Sikkim on October 3. The NDMA said this was a preparatory mission that succeeded in identifying appropriate locations and installing the automated weather stations (AWS).
In addition, it identified potential locations to install an array of sensors for an end-to-end early warning system during the next expedition, and suggested potential mitigation measures. One set of camera views and more than 250 weather observations were received daily.
However, equipment at South Lhonak ceased transmission after September 19, the statement said. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) contingent checked the equipment on September 28 as physically stable, but it could not be revived.
As the state still reels from the devastation and help is still not reaching, questions on government’s accountability are being raised by activists and political leaders.
On Saturday, meanwhile, Sikkim Chief Secretary V. B. Pathak sought ground reports on relief and restoration work from collectors of four districts worst affected by the recent flash flood in the Himalayan state.
He chaired a review meeting, seeking the reports from the collectors of Mangan, Gangtok, Pakyong and Namchi districts to assess the status of the ongoing rescue, relief and restoration work in the flood-affected areas, and discuss further course of action.
The district officials apprised the chief secretary of the details of the rehabilitation of house owners and tenants displaced by the disaster and currently sheltered in relief camps.
“Whatever happened to all the Himalayan states in the past 10 years, we cannot call it a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster and we have to accept it. The governments of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and north-eastern states have to accept this fact,” Lepcha said.