NEW DELHI, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Scientists and government authorities were working on an early warning system for glacial floods at a Himalayan lake in northeastern India when it burst its banks this week, with deadly consequences.
The mountainous state of Sikkim descended into chaos on Wednesday, with floods caused by torrential rains and an avalanche killing at least 40 people. This was one of the worst disasters in the region in 50 years, and dozens remained missing on Friday.
Officials involved in the project told Reuters that the first part of the system, a camera to monitor the level of Lake Lunak and weather instruments, was installed last month.
Scientists said that if the warning system was turned on at full capacity, it could give people more time to evacuate.
Details of the warning system for Lake Lunak have not been previously reported.
“It’s really ridiculous,” said geologist Simon Allen of the University of Zurich involved in the project. “The fact that it happened after only two weeks of having our team was completely bad luck.”
He said they planned to add a sensor to the tripwire that could be triggered if the lake was about to explode. This is usually connected to an alarm system warning residents to evacuate immediately.
“The Indian government was not ready to do that this year, so it was done as a two-step process,” he said.
Authorities and residents were supposed to have a warning time of 90 minutes, according to simulations conducted by scientists while planning an early warning system at Lake Lunac. It would also have allowed the hydroelectric power station to open its gates earlier.
“90 minutes is certainly enough time to safely evacuate people and open the doors of the hydroelectric dam,” Allen said.
An Indian official familiar with the project told Reuters that the exact design of the system is still under development.
The installed surveillance devices were supposed to send data to the authorities, but the camera stopped working for an unknown reason in late September, according to a source at the Swiss embassy supporting the project.
As climate change warms high mountain regions, many communities are facing dangerous glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Lakes holding water from melting glaciers can fill and burst, sending torrents rushing down mountain valleys.
More than 200 such lakes now pose a very high risk to Himalayan communities in India, Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bhutan, according to 2022. research.
In recent years, glacier flood early warning systems have been deployed in China, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan.
An Indian official with direct knowledge of the project said the plan is to trial India’s first early warning systems for glacial floods at Lake Lunak and another at nearby Chakhu Chu in Sikkim, before expanding to other dangerous lakes.
Scientists have said for years that these two lakes are at risk of flooding, but the design process and search for funding caused time to pass without progress.
Kamal Kishore, a senior official at India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said India plans to install early warning systems in several other glacial lakes.
He did not answer further questions about the Lunac project.
However, Farooq Azam, a glaciologist at the Indian Institute of Technology Indore, pointed out that even if the system existed, the potential benefits were not always clear.
(Reporting by Ali Weathers in Copenhagen, Gloria Dickie in Amsterdam and Shivam Patel in Delhi; Preparing by Muhammad Al-Yamani for the Arabic Newsletter – Preparing by Muhammad Al-Yamani for the Arabic Newsletter) Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Michael Perry
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