For years, residents of the northern Indian city of Joshimath have complained to local authorities that their homes are collapsing. Now authorities are forced to act, evacuating nearly 100 families last week and accelerating the arrival of experts to determine the cause.
The fissures running through the city are now so wide that hundreds of homes are no longer habitable, and some fear India may lose a key gateway for religious pilgrimages and tourist expeditions on nearby mountain trails.
Located in the northeast state of Uttarakhand, Joshimath is bordered by two rivers and nestled on the slopes of the Himalayas, which environmental experts say makes it particularly susceptible to earthquakes, landslides land and erosion.
“Joshimath, and many other cities in the Himalayas, are geologically prone to subsidence,” otherwise known as subsidence or settling of the Earth’s surface, said Sameer Kwatra, program policy director. Indian from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kwatra added that the natural factors which put Joshimath, home to around 25,000 people, sinking risks are “exacerbated by large-scale construction projects as well as climate-induced flash flooding and extreme rainfall.”
In August 2022, a team of scientists, geologists and researchers organized by the state government of Uttarakhand conducted a geological survey of Joshimath and noted that local residents reported an acceleration of land erosion this that year, caused largely by heavy rains in October 2021. and devastating flash floods earlier that year, raising concerns about the impact of climate change on the region.
The survey revealed extensive damage to houses in Joshimath, indicating that some houses were “dangerous for human habitation” and posed a “serious risk” to their inhabitants.
The report pointed to visible cracks in walls, floors and along various roads as evidence that the city was sinking and recommended that construction in some areas be curtailed, along with “further development activity in the area. . limited to the extent possible”.
Despite the recommendation, construction in the area continued until last week. On January 5, the district administration temporarily halted all construction work in Joshimath, including work on a bypass road and the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project. The hydroelectric plant is being constructed on the Dhauliganga River which partially borders the eastern side of Joshimath. Construction of the project involves the digging of tunnels, which some residents and environmental experts say may have worsened soil erosion.
According to local news outlets, NTPC released a statement on Jan. 5, the day construction was halted, stating that “NTPC wishes to inform with all responsibility that the tunnel has nothing to do with the landslide that s is produced in the city of Joshimath”.
CNN has contacted NTPC for comment.
Suraj Kaparuwan, a 38-year-old businessman who runs a small hotel in Joshimath, told CNN that cracks started to appear in his field and in the walls of his house a year ago, but the situation has improved. has worsened in recent months.
“Hairline cracks in the field started to appear about a year ago. They have widened over time, especially in the past two months. They are now about 3 feet wide,” Kaparuwan told CNN.
Last Wednesday evening, Kaparuwan’s family wife and two sons left Joshimath for Srinagar Garhwal, another town further south in the same state.
Kaparuwan initially stayed behind to join what he said were thousands of Joshimath residents and allies from nearby villages who were protesting outside local government buildings, calling for an end to construction and demanding compensation. appropriate for those who had to leave their homes.
On Monday, Kaparuwan was told by local officials that his home was in the “danger zone” and that he needed to move. With upcoming hotel reservations cancelled, Kaparuwan told CNN he plans to bring all of his belongings to the hotel and wait to see what the future holds for Joshimath.
“We hope for the fresh start of all things, but it will depend on the government, what measures they take,” he said.
As of Thursday, cracks were present in 760 buildings and 589 people had been evacuated, according to a newsletter issued by the district administration.
Pushkar Singh Dhami, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand visited the affected areas last Saturday, inspect homes of residents who fear structures may collapse.
“Our priority is to keep everyone safe,” Dhami told reporters after touring the area.
Joshimath’s land subsidence is “not a new problem,” Ranjit Sinha, Uttarakhand state’s disaster management secretary, told CNN last week, explaining during a press conference. a few days later: “The ground is very loose. The earth cannot support the load.
A two-year study by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, conducted between July 2020 and March 2022, found that Joshimath and surrounding areas are sinking at the rate of 6.5 centimeters (2.5 inches) per year.
However, local officials say the current cracks are more frequent and larger than those they have seen in the past.
Himanshu Khurana, magistrate for the district of Chamoli, which includes Joshimath, said the cracks that appeared a year ago were “deepening very slowly and gradually”, but “what has happened in the last month, especially in from about December 15, was a different phenomenon in different Locations.”
When asked, Khurana could not say what caused the cracks to spread suddenly in December, but said he hoped experts would find out and find a solution “very soon”.
Experts from the National Disaster Management Authority, National Institute of Disaster Management, Geological Survey of India, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, National Institute of Hydrology and Central Building Research Institute have been commissioned to study the situation in Joshimath.
By Friday, some of those crews had already arrived in the city to begin work, according to Khurana.
Their findings could help not only Joshimath and nearby towns in the Himalayan region, but also other towns with similar terrain that may put them at risk of sinking in the future.
Kwatra of the Natural Resources Defense Council said Joshimath’s problems are not unique and are likely to become more common if the world fails to slow rising global temperatures.
“What is happening in Joshimath is another reminder that climate change is already having serious impacts that will only get worse unless we act urgently, boldly and decisively to reduce emissions,” he said.
Kaparuwan, whose family has lived in Joshimath for decades, said her dreams for the future were “shattered”.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” he said. “It’s a very bleak situation for me right now.”