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Joshimath in the Indian Himalayas sinks; cracks in houses force evacuations

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Cracks appeared at the end of last year. Walls, ceilings and even the earth began to fracture. This month several cracks have widened into large crevasses, and in some places muddy water has begun to gush from the ground.

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

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

His home was in the danger zone, officials said, and his family was told to evacuate. Vein-like marks crisscross the white and blue walls of all eight rooms of her two-story home, which is filled with clothes and hastily packed boxes of change.

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

The city is a wake-up call, experts say, not just for India but for the entire Himalayan Hindu Kush mountain region, part of the so-called “Third Pole” which contains the world’s third-largest repository of glacial ice. The Third Pole spans over half a dozen countries, including China, and is critical to the fate of over a billion people.

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

In 2021, the area experienced a deadly flood after a section of rock and an overhanging glacier tumbled down a steep slope. This calamity was exacerbated when floodwaters encountered infrastructure barriers, gaining speed and debris and killing more than 80 people. Experts have said that climate change may have contributed to the disaster, and studies have found that Himalayan glaciers 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 typically the result of human activity. Earth subsidence can occur when groundwater, which sustains the earth, is removed from certain rocks. When the water runs out, 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 irreversibly messing up our environment,” said Anjal Prakash, who researches climate change and sustainability at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Local authorities declined to identify a specific cause for the subsidence of land in Joshimath, which is in an earthquake-prone area, saying scientists were investigating. But Prakash noted that hydroelectric dams and other large infrastructure projects are being built within the fragile Himalayan ecosystem without regard for ecology. (Uttarakhand’s glacier-fed rivers make it an attractive area for hydropower 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 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“No one is sure” about 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 a groundwater reservoir that forced muddy water to gush out of the ground.

“As the water drains the finer materials from the rubble, the land sinks,” he said, adding that construction exceeded the capacity of the land.

As experts investigate, residents like tourism worker Durga Saklani, 52, live amid apocalyptic scenes. The tiles in his newly built house have started to jump, the doors won’t close and the walls are caving in, he said.

“The popping sounds still echo in my ears every night,” he said.

Many residents blame a nearby hydroelectric project that is behind the national government. They claim that the blast and tunneling punctured an underground stream and made the land unstable.

NTPC, the state-owned power company behind the project, did not respond to a request for comment. But the Indian Express newspaper reported that it denied the allegations and said its tunnel does not pass under Joshimath. No detonations are underway, the company said.

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

His house has small cracks, but he dreads what comes next.

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

Situated at an altitude of 6,151 feet, Joshimath sits on the rubble of an ancient landslide. The town expanded rapidly after emerging as a major resting place for the thousands of devotees who traveled across the range to important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage spots.

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

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

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

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

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

“Now the [laundromat’s] the earth has a half meter hole,” he said. “I can no longer see my future.”