Published22 hours ago
Shyam Babu Prasad was asleep when the deluge struck his home.
He and his family used to live in Lal Bazar, a busy market area located on the banks of Teesta river in India’s Sikkim state.
“All of a sudden, a wave about 15ft high hit our home and all of us were thrown by its force,” Mr Prasad said.
He held on to a ceiling fan to survive the torrent and was rescued the next morning. But his wife, who had been with him the night before, was missing.
Mr Prasad said the water separated them. “I screamed, called her name but once the water gushed towards us, there was complete darkness and my voice drowned with everything else.”
More than 10 days later, he was still searching for her.
Mr Prasad is among the 80,000 people whose lives were upended after a glacial lake burst its banks, triggering deadly flash floods in the Himalayan state. At least 70 people, including nine soldiers, have died, thousands have been displaced and 76 people are still missing since the deluge on 4 October.
Mr Prasad’s sister Santoshi Devi, who lived next door, was among those who lost their lives.
“Mum and I were holding hands, but the force of water separated us. I called my mother many times, but she was not there,” her daughter Chandini said. Devi’s body was found three days later.
Experts say the water from the South Lhonak lake cascaded down the valley and overflowed the Teesta river, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. The floodwaters also destroyed a dam on the downstream of the river, causing water levels to rise further.
A local organisation of tribespeople has been protesting against the dam at Chungthang for years, fearing damage to the environment in the ecologically sensitive region.
“But we were told we are not experts,” said Gyatso Lepcha, a tribal leader who has been at the forefront of protests.
However, the Sikkim government, which has been busy with relief efforts, held a different view.
Vijay Bhushan Pathak, the chief secretary of Sikkim, told the BBC, “Given the amount of rain, all the dams and bunds overflowed in the state. Now, when the embankments overflow, some more events are expected. Whether the dam burst or not will certainly be investigated.”
What caused the outburst at South Lhonak also remains unclear. BBC’s environment correspondent Navin Singh Khadka reported earlier that some say it may have resulted from a cloudburst, while others attribute the disaster to the failure of the moraines – characterised by loose boulders, rocks and soil – at the edge of the glacial lake. Some have even linked it to an earthquake.
Experts say global warming is causing glaciers to melt faster and this has led to an increase in the water levels of several Himalayan lakes.
For the people of Sikkim, the loss has been incalculable. At Singtham, a tiny village located on the banks of Teesta, villagers cleared the sludge and debris from their homes, or at least, what remained of it.
The floods destroyed a key bridge which connected the remote village to the nearby town of Adarsh Nagar. Now, a slim wall of an under-construction dam was the only way to travel between the two places.
Anju Pradhan walked down the rickety path with trepidation. She was going back to town to revisit her house, where she had lived for 40 years.
She and her mother-in-law survived the floods with nothing but the clothes they were wearing that night.
“Someone called us and said that the flood is coming, run away. There was no electricity so we had to find our way in the darkness,” she said at a relief camp in Singtham where she was staying with her family.
That night most people ran towards the bridge to cross into the village, hoping they could return once the situation got better.
“But when we looked back we saw the water had engulfed the whole town. Even the bridge we had crossed minutes before was gone,” Ms Pradhan added.
Nowhere was the damage more evident than along the riverbanks and hills up north of Teesta. Roads were ruptured – and some were completely destroyed.
Volunteers climbed the rocky mountains carrying food and essentials on their back to reach the areas which have been cut off. Every few minutes, an army helicopter flew overhead as the rescue missions continued.
On the way to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, an elderly woman was seen digging through a heap of mud.
She said her family, who are labourers, had travelled to Sikkim from the eastern state of Bihar to work on a dam near Singtham village.
After her house was washed away, she was rummaging through its debris to find her belongings, including a cluster of salary receipts. She said they were important to prove she was an employee at the dam.
“That will at least help us get paid.”
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