For years, residents of the northern Indian city of Joshimath have complained to local authorities that their homes were sinking. Now authorities are being forced to act, evacuating nearly 100 families in the last week and speeding up the arrival of specialists to determine the cause.
The cracks running through the city are now so large that hundreds of homes are no longer habitable, and some fear that India could lose an important gateway for religious pilgrimages and tourist expeditions on nearby mountain trails.
Located in the northeastern state of Uttarakhand, Joshimath is washed by two rivers and nestled on the slopes of the Himalayas, which environmental experts say makes it particularly susceptible to earthquakes, landslides and erosion.
“Joshimath, and many other cities in the Himalayas, are geologically prone to sinking,” also known as sinking or sinking of the Earth’s surface, said Sameer Kwatra, director of policy for the India program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kwatra added that the natural factors that put Joshimath, home to around 25,000 people, at risk of sinking are “being exacerbated by large-scale construction projects, as well as weather-induced flash flooding and extreme rainfall”.
In August 2022, a team of scientists, geologists and researchers organized by the Uttarakhand State Government conducted a geological survey of Joshimath and noted that local residents reported an accelerated pace of land erosion that year, largely caused 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 found extensive damage to homes in Joshimath, stating that some homes were “unsafe for human habitation” and posed a “serious risk” to their inhabitants.
The report pointed to visible cracks in walls, floors and along several roads as evidence that the city was sinking, and recommended that construction in certain areas be reduced, with “further development activities in the area… restricted to the extent possible”.
Despite the recommendation, works in the region continued until last week. On 5 January, the district administration temporarily closed all construction work in Joshimath, including work on a secondary road and the Tapovan Vshnugad hydroelectric project of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). The hydroelectric plant is being built on the Dhauliganga River, which partially borders the east side of Joshimath. Construction of the project involves the construction of tunnels, which some residents and environmental experts believe may have worsened soil erosion.
According to local media, NTPC issued a statement on January 5, the day construction was halted, stating that “NTPC wants to inform you with full responsibility that the tunnel has nothing to do with the landslide. what is happening in the city of Joshimath”.
CNN has reached out to NTPC for comment.
Families forced to flee
Suraj Kaparuwan, a 38-year-old businessman who runs a small hotel in Joshimath, told CNN that cracks started appearing in his field and in the walls of his home a year ago, but the situation has worsened in recent months.
“Fine cracks in the field started to show about a year ago. They have been widening over time, especially in the last two months. They are now about a meter wide,” Kaparuwan told CNN.
Last Wednesday night, the Kaparuwan family’s wife and two children 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 protesting outside local administrative buildings, calling for an end to construction and asking for adequate compensation for those who had to leave their homes.
On Monday, local authorities told Kaparuwan that his home was in the “danger zone” and he had to move out. With upcoming hotel bookings cancelled, Kaparuwan told CNN that he plans to move all of his household belongings to the hotel and wait to see what the future holds for Joshimath.
“We hope for the restart of all things, but it will depend on the government, what steps they take,” he said.
As of Thursday, there were cracks in 760 buildings and 589 people had been evacuated, according to a bulletin released by the district administration.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami visited the affected areas last Saturday, inspecting the homes of residents who fear structures could collapse.
“Our priority is to keep everyone safe,” Dhami told reporters after visiting the area.
The subsidence of land in Joshimath “is not a new problem,” Ranjit Sinha, Uttarakhand state secretary for disaster management, told CNN last week, elaborating at a press conference a few days later: “The ground is very loose. . The earth cannot bear the load.”
A two-year study by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, conducted between July 2020 and March 2022, found that Joshimath and its surroundings are sinking at a rate of 6.5 centimeters (2.5 inches) per year.
However, local authorities say that current cracks are more common and wider than those seen in the past.
Himanshu Khurana, magistrate of Chamoli district, which includes Joshimath, says the cracks that appeared a year ago “were widening very slowly and gradually”, but “what happened in the last month, particularly around December 15th, was a different phenomenon in different places. Locations.”
When asked, Khurana couldn’t say what caused the sudden spread of cracks in December, but said he expected experts to figure it out and find a solution “very quickly”.
Experts from the National Disaster Management Authority, National Institute of Disaster Management, Geological Survey of India, Indian Institute of Roorkee Technology, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, National Institute of Hydrology and Central Building Research Institute were tasked with studying the situation in Joshimate.
Until Friday, some of these teams had already arrived in the city to start work, according to Khurana.
Their findings could help not only Joshimath and nearby cities in the Himalayan region, but also other cities with similar terrain that could 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 yet another reminder that climate change is already having severe impacts that will only continue to get worse unless we act with urgency, boldness and resolve to reduce emissions,” he said.
Kaparuwan, whose family has lived in Joshimath for decades, said his 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.”
Source: CNN Brasil
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