Glacial Lakes Threaten Millions in a Warming World

If the now-destroyed Teesta 3 dam had received advance warning of the flood, the deluge might not have been so destructive. Sikkim Urja Limited, which handles the operation of the dam, has confirmed that the dam’s spillway gates couldn’t be opened in time to try to accommodate the flood. Had they been, it’s possible the dam might have been better able to handle the sudden arrival of so much extra water. Sikkim Urja Limited has said it will investigate the failure to open the gates in time.

“GLOF events like Sikkim are bound to happen more frequently—we are not taking scientists’ recommendations seriously,” says Arun Shreshtha, a senior climate change specialist at ICIMOD. Scientists like Shreshtha are asking for the expedited installment of safety warning systems, building future houses and infrastructure so they are less susceptible to flood damage, and if possible, leaving fragile mountain areas undisturbed by development projects. “We are not allocating enough financial resources to handle it,” Shreshtha says of the threat.

Teaching the public about the threat of glacial lake flooding—and what to do in such an event—also needs to improve, says Sattar. “Merely piling up scientific research and not communicating it to the masses in simple words is going to do no good.”

Many people living close to remote glacial lakes are some of the most marginalized and financially vulnerable people across India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. “On their own, mountain people are definitely not ready to face these challenges,” says Shreshtha. In both mitigating risks and responding to floods, there needs to be more money available.

According to Roshan Lama, a first responder with the Edwards Foundation, a relief agency working in West Bengal and Sikkim, thousands of people affected by the Lhonak flood are living in relief camps set up in government schools and community centers. “The ground situation is that many houses have been washed away, and many have been damaged. And people cannot simply return, because they don’t even know where the houses were,” says Lama. “The whole plots are gone.” Lama is concerned that another lake outburst disaster could occur at any time. “There are so many lakes which are under threat,” he says.

“We can’t risk another Chamoli,” says Shreshtha, referring to the 2021 outburst in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, which left over 200 people dead or missing. “If we sleep on these alarms, millions will feel the wrath from the mountains.”

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