Environmental experts say the ongoing construction of the 520-MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectricity project may have increased damage caused by a Feb. 7 glacier burst in India’s Himalayan region that is believed to have killed 204 people. 

A portion of a glacier, called Nanda Devi, broke off in the Chamoli district of the north Indian state of Uttarakhand resulting in a massive flood that hit two hydropower projects and caused major mudslides across several days.

“The Tapovan project acted as a force multiplier. More lives were lost because of the project. Vast amounts of muck and debris had been dumped in the Dhauliganga River during the ongoing construction of the project,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an independent NGO, told ENR.

A  total of 69 bodies have been recovered following the glacier breach. Another 135 people who are missing will be declared dead because there is little hope of finding survivors, the local state government of Uttarakhand said.

Before it burst, the glacier tumbled to 3800 meters from a mountain height of 5600 meters. The region, which is usually in a sub-zero temperature range, was undergoing a drastic warming abound Feb. 7, resulting in the dramatic melting and flash floods, scientists said. 

SANDRP said it has obtained information that the barrage gates of the Tapovan dam were closed during the disaster. Had they been open, the flood debris could have flowed downstream, saving lives.

In 2013, Uttarakhand experienced a major rain followed by devastating floods and landslides that killed thousands of people. The death toll then, which included bodies recovered and those that had been presumed dead, was 5,700 people. 

Thakkar said state authorities did not learn the lesson then to more closely monitor the fragile mountain ranges and the many glacial lakes in the region. Uttarakhand state has 14 dams and hydroelectric projects, some of which are under construction. Environmentalists say they have been built too close to each other and over tributaries of the same rivers.

Geologists and environmental experts are also warning there are other glaciers posing serious risks in the region. A government backed research organization, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, has said 16 of the 78 ‘tehsil’ areas (the equivalent of a county) in the affected state of Uttarakhand are vulnerable to glacier bursts in future.

The hill state of Uttarakhand has as many as 1,266 glacial lakes, some of which pose serious risks. 

"All of them are not a threat. The formation of a glacial lake is a natural process. Among them, the Moraine Dam poses a threat. But then all Moraine Dam glacial lakes are not dangerous. Only 10-11 may be at risk," says DP Dobhal, a glaciologist at the Institute, said.

“We must be vigilant,” said Dobhal. 

“Employees, including engineers connected with the hydroelectric projects, said the water gushed in suddenly and there was no way to deal with the situation,” Vimal Bhai, an activist with the Matu JanSangathan, an environmental NGO, told ENR. “Very little attention has been paid to the need for safeguards in both Rishi Ganga and Tapovan hydroelectric projects, although the region saw a major disaster in 2013,” he said.