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Joshimath in Indian Himalayas sinks; cracks on homes force evacuations

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Joshimath in Indian Himalayas sinks; cracks on homes force evacuations

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

The town of Joshimath, in the Indian Himalayas, is starting to sink.

Authorities have evacuated hundreds of residents to government schools or hotels in other parts of town. “There is absolute panic,” said Suraj Kaparuwan, a 38-year-old businessman.

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

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

The town 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 world’s third-largest repository of glacial ice. The Third Pole spans more than half a dozen countries, including China, and is critical to the fate of more than a billion people.

More than 700 homes in Joshimath, a town of about 22,000 people, have developed cracks. Construction in the area, some 320 miles northeast of India’s capital, New Delhi, was halted this week. The chief minister of Uttarakhand state, where Joshimath is located, announced that cities would be audited to ensure they consider both ecological and economic needs.

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

Deadly floods in India point to a looming climate emergency in the Himalayas

There are many reasons that earth sinks, although it is typically the result of human activity. Land subsidence can occur when groundwater, which holds up land, is removed from certain rocks. When the water is gone, the rock “falls in on itself,” writes the US Geological Survey, which also notes that activities such as underground mining can contribute to the sinking.

“We are messing up our environment to an extent that is irreversible,” said Anjal Prakash, who researches climate change and sustainability at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Local officials declined to pinpoint a specific cause for land subsidence in Joshimath, which sits in an earthquake-prone area, saying scientists are investigating. But Prakash noted that hydropower and other large infrastructure projects are being built within the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas without taking ecology into account. (Uttarakhand’s glacier-fed rivers make it an attractive area for hydropower projects, eight of which were under construction in 2020.)

Climate change acts as a force multiplier and “will make everything worse,” said Prakash, who has contributed to reports by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Nobody is really sure” about what is happening, said Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority. The immediate trigger for the recent large cracks, he said, seemed to be a breach in an underground water reservoir that forced muddy water to spurt out of the ground.

“If the water leaches off finer materials from the debris, the land sinks,” he said, adding that construction has exceeded the land’s capacity.

As the experts investigate, residents such as tourism worker Durga Saklani, 52, are living amid apocalyptic scenes. Tiles in his recently constructed home have started to pop out, doors won’t shut, and walls are sinking, he said.

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

Many residents pin blame on a hydropower project in the town’s vicinity that the national government is behind. They allege that blasting and drilling for a tunnel punctured an underground stream and made the land 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 it denied the charges and said that its tunnel does not pass under Joshimath. No blasting is ongoing, the company said.

Prakash Negi, a 45-year-old resident, said the power project was opposed by locals. 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 comes next.

“We have lived here for generations,” Negi said. “If this continues to happen, where will we go?”

Situated at an altitude of 6,151 feet, Joshimath sits on the debris of an old landslide. The town expanded rapidly after emerging as a key rest spot for the thousands of devotees traveling further up the mountain range to important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage spots.

Half of Earth’s glaciers could melt even if key warming goal is met, study says

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

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

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

“We need to have the stringent rules and regulations and timely implementation of these rules,” he said. “We are not against development but not at the cost of disasters.”

Residents who have been rendered homeless overnight say their future is bleak. Kaparuwan, the businessman, had left Joshimath and worked in larger cities. But he said he came back to support the local economy. He runs a small hotel and had set up a laundry business in November with a $25,000 bank loan.

“Now the [laundromat’s] country has a two-feet gaping hole,” he said. “I can’t see my future anymore.”

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