In a tragic turn of events, a catastrophic glacial lake overflow and subsequent dam breach have resulted in a devastating flood in India’s northern Himalayan region. This disaster, which unfolded when a mountain lake overflowed with tremendous force, led to the breach of a major hydroelectric dam downstream, causing extensive destruction in the valley below. The calamity occurred during the early hours of a Wednesday, claiming the lives of at least 41 people and necessitating the evacuation of thousands from their homes.
While the precise trigger for this catastrophic flood remains uncertain, experts have proposed that intense rainfall and a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in nearby Nepal might have contributed to the disaster. This tragic event marks the latest occurrence in a series of destructive floods and landslides that have plagued northeastern India over the past year, driven by exceptionally heavy monsoon rains.
The Teesta 3 dam, Sikkim state’s largest, has faced controversy since its inception. Local activists have contended that the dam was constructed without adequate safety measures, particularly in light of the Himalayan region’s increasingly volatile weather patterns linked to climate change. In 2019, the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority’s report identified the lake the dam was intended to contain as “highly vulnerable” to flooding, warning of the potential for flash floods to breach dams.
Furthermore, a 2021 study highlighted the rising risk of a catastrophic flood due to melting glaciers causing water levels in the lake to surge. Despite these concerns, the dam’s operator and local agencies responsible for dam safety failed to respond effectively.
Following this tragic event, India’s National Disaster Management Agency has announced plans to implement early warning systems for real-time alerts at the country’s 56 known high-risk glacial lakes. Nonetheless, critics argue that authorities have not gleaned crucial lessons from past dam breaches and should conduct a comprehensive safety review of all dams in the region.
The growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, a consequence of climate change, exacerbate the risks associated with hydroelectric dams in the Himalayas. Despite these escalating dangers, the Indian government has approved numerous new hydroelectric projects in the region, with the aim of increasing hydroelectric output by 2030. This surge in extreme events poses a threat not only to existing dams but also to the communities living downstream from them.
In response to these mounting threats, the Indian federal government enacted a dam safety law in 2021, obliging operators and local governments to formulate emergency plans. Nevertheless, the Teesta 3 dam is conspicuously absent from the list of facilities monitored for safety by India’s chief dam regulator, the Central Water Commission.
As rescue efforts persist in the wake of this disaster, the devastating consequences of extreme weather events and the difficulties associated with managing dams in a changing climate underscore the urgent necessity for robust safety measures and concerted climate mitigation endeavors in vulnerable regions.