Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas flows; the cracks on the houses force the evacuations

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The cracks appeared late last year. Walls, ceilings and even the earth began to fracture. This month, several cracks have widened into large crevices and in some places muddy water has started to spurt out of the ground.

The city of Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas begins to sink.

Authorities evacuated hundreds of residents to public schools or hotels in other parts of the city. “It’s absolute panic,” said Suraj Kaparuwan, a 38-year-old businessman.

His home was in the danger zone, authorities said, and his family was ordered to evacuate. Vein-like marks criss-cross the white and blue walls of the eight rooms in her two-story house, which is littered with hastily packed clothes and moving boxes.

Joshimath is the latest casualty in the Himalayan region, where uncontrolled development is colliding with climate change and frequent natural disasters.

The city is a warning sign, experts say, not just for India but for the entire Himalayan Hindu Kush mountain region, part of what has been called the “third pole”, which contains the third largest deposit of glacial ice in the world. The third pole spans more than half a dozen countries, including China, and is essential to the fate of more than a billion people.

More than 700 homes in Joshimath, a city of about 22,000 people, have developed cracks. Construction in the area, about 320 miles northeast of the Indian capital, New Delhi, was arrested this week. The chief minister of Uttarakhand state, where Joshimath is located, has announced that cities will be audited to ensure they take into account both ecological and economic needs.

In 2021, the area experienced a deadly flood after a section of hanging rock and glacier fell down a steep slope. This calamity was exacerbated when the floods encountered infrastructure barriers, picking up speed and debris and killing more than 80 people. Experts have said climate change may have contributed to the disaster, and studies have shown glaciers in the Himalayas are melting dramatically and at a much faster rate than in the 20th century.

Deadly floods in India point to impending climate emergency in Himalayas

There are many reasons why the earth sinks, although it is usually the result of human activity. Land subsidence can occur when groundwater, which holds the earth together, is pulled from certain rocks. When there is no more water, the rock “falls back on itself”, writes the US Geological Survey, which also notes that activities such as underground mining can contribute to sinking.

“We are destroying our environment to an irreversible point,” said Anjal Prakash, who studies climate change and sustainability at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Local officials declined to identify a specific cause for the ground subsidence in Joshimath, which is in an earthquake-prone area, saying scientists were investigating. But Prakash noted that hydropower and other major infrastructure projects are being built in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem without considering ecology. (Uttarakhand’s glacier-fed rivers make it an attractive area for hydroelectric projects, eight of which were under construction as of 2020.)

Climate change acts as a force multiplier and will “make everything worse,” said Prakash, who contributed to reports for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“No one is really sure” what is going on, said Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority. The immediate trigger for the recent large cracks, he said, appeared to be a breach in an underground water reservoir that forced muddy water to gush out of the ground.

“As the water leaches the finer materials from the debris, the earth sinks,” he said, adding that construction has exceeded the capacity of the earth.

As experts investigate, locals such as tourism worker Durga Saklani, 52, live amid apocalyptic scenes. The tiles in his newly built home have started to come out, the doors won’t close and the walls are crumbling, he said.

“The sounds of the crackle still ring in my ears every night,” he said.

Many residents blame it on a hydroelectric project in the vicinity of the city initiated by the national government. They allege that the blasting and tunneling breached an underground watercourse and made the ground unstable.

NTPC, the government-owned power company behind the project, did not respond to a request for comment. But the Indian Express newspaper reported that he denied the charges and said his tunnel did not pass under Joshimath. No blasting is underway, the company said.

Prakash Negi, a 45-year-old resident, said the electricity project was opposed by residents. When people first reported damage to their homes last year, the government did nothing, he said.

His house has minor cracks, but he fears what’s to come.

“We’ve lived here for generations,” Negi said. “If this continues, where will we go?”

Located at an elevation of 6,151 feet, Joshimath rests on the debris of an ancient landslide. The town grew rapidly after becoming a key resting place for the thousands of devotees traveling further up the mountain range to important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites.

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Cracks and signs of sinking also appeared at Joshimath in the 1970s, but the extent of the damage is far greater this time around, experts familiar with the topography said.

The current crisis is the result of “governance failure”, said geologist Yaspal Sundriyal, a professor at Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Uttarakhand.

He suggested that the authorities demolish the multi-storey buildings and the damaged houses, which would reduce the pressure on the land. People should not be allowed to build new houses in unstable areas, and hydroelectric projects should not be built in the upper Himalayan region, he added.

“We need tough rules and regulations and quick implementation of those rules,” he said. “We are not against development but not at the cost of disasters.”

Residents who found themselves homeless overnight say their future is bleak. Kaparuwan, the businessman, had left Joshimath and was working in the big cities. But he said he returned to support the local economy. He runs a small hotel and started a laundry business in November with a $25,000 bank loan.

“Now the [laundromat’s] the earth has a two-foot gaping hole,” he said. “I no longer see my future.”

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