Joshimath sinking: Anatomy of a Himalayan disaster in the making

Joshimath may all sink, according to satellite images issued by the National Remote Sensing Centre of ISRO
A resident shows cracks that appeared in a house in Joshimath
A resident shows cracks that appeared in a house in JoshimathPTI

JOSHIMATH (Uttarakhand): Joshimath is a town on the edge. It's the very precipice for thousands of people, despairing as the lives they have always known slip away just as their mountain town sinks a little more each day and cracks on their homes get dangerously wider.

Families are segregated, and pets and cattle remain unattended as people move out to safety. Many small businesses have shut shop or are in the process of doing so. The future looms dark and uncertain with residents saying they are not sure how long it will take for the earth to swallow their hometown.

A resident shows cracks that appeared in a house in Joshimath
Foreign, Indian satellite images showed Joshimath sinking

"This is a disaster in the making. Many of its implications will unfold in the days to come. You will soon see an epidemic of mental issues cropping up in the town," Atul Sati, president of the Joshimath Bachao Sangarsh Samiti and environmental activist, told PTI. The fear of the unknown tomorrow is constant.

Two weeks after she woke up to a loud sound, akin to stones crumbling against each other, Nita Devi is still in a daze. The family has been evacuated to safety and she returns each day to see if her home is still intact.

A resident shows cracks that appeared in a house in Joshimath
Joshimath sinking: Demolition process of two hotels begins

"I have just one request from the government - provide us with a house. We just need a roof over our heads," she said, her eyes welling up.

Next to a red cross, a stark contrast to the blue walls of what was once her home, is an orange sticker saying "unusable". For the 65-year-old, the vivid colours are cruel irony for the gloom edging her life and that of her town.

"Where can we go from here? My son had a furniture business here which is now shut. My grandson used to go to school here," she said, pointing to gaping fissures that were not so long ago hairline cracks on the walls of her home.

"My son told me it is dangerous to live in the house as the land around the neighbourhood is sinking." Nita Devi and her family are not alone.

Joshimath, a town of nearly 23,000 people in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district at a height of over 6,150 feet, is slowly sinking, said experts.

Disaster response teams are on standby and officials ready plans to evacuate 40 per cent of the town if the situation worsens. Sati. however, fears all of Joshimath town might need to be evacuated as every life matters.

Cracks have developed in nearly 850 buildings, including a temple and the Auli Ropeway, and on pavements and streets. An estimated 165 buildings are in danger zone. Some hotels now lean on each other.

Over 600 people from 145 families have so far been shifted from their homes to schools, gurdwaras, hotels and homestays.

A walk through the streets in some places tells the story of the slow devastation that the subsidence has caused.

A team of experts from seven organisations has been constituted to study and give recommendations on the situation in Joshimath.

So what is causing this Himalayan town to subside?

"Joshimath is not suitable for a township", the government appointed Mishra Committee report had warned in 1976 and recommended a ban on heavy construction work in the area.

The warning was not heeded. Over the decades, the place exploded into a busy gateway for thousands of pilgrims and tourists.

Unchecked construction flourished on its fragile slopes, which experts said were formed from the debris of old landslides and are therefore prone to subsidence.

The use of explosives for extensive drilling and digging during the construction of roads, dams and buildings in the area has made the slopes weaker.

"One of the primary reasons that man-made landslides happen in the Himalayas is because, while constructing roads, people cut away the toe of slopes.

Consequently, the whole bunch of rocks that were being supported by the toe, are now totally destabilized and looking for opportunities to fall off," said Abhijit Mukherjee, professor of geology and geophysics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

"I would imagine the mega road constructions going on in the surrounding of Joshimath have certainly developed such ill-supported slopes which are absolutely prone to sliding and sinking," Mukherjee told PTI in an email interview.

In addition to reckless construction, a number of hydroelectric power projects are also being built around the town.

According to a 2010 paper titled "Disaster looms large over Joshimath" compiled by geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela, a major concern is the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. The tunnel, it said, traverses "all through the geologically fragile area below Joshimath".

"There have been previous reports that tunnelling related to the Tapovan-Vishnughat project had pierced a large aquifer (underground water storage) in 2009 that led to a discharge of 60-70 million litres of water per day," said Kusala Rajendran, seismologist and professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

"Imagine the surface effect of such instability. It can lead to readjustments in the subsurface and based on the nature of the rocks, the ground might subside," Rajendran told PTI over the phone.

Activist Sati said there may be many reasons for making the region fragile but the current subsidence in Joshimath is to be blamed on the blasting caused for the 520 MW project developed by the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC).

NTPC has denied the link of the project to Joshimath's subsidence.

"The tunnel built by NTPC does not pass under Joshimath town. This tunnel is dug by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) and no blasting is being carried out presently," NTPC said in a statement last week.

Satellite images of Joshimath released by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) show that the Himalayan town sank at a rapid pace of 5.4 cm in just 12 days, triggered by a possible subsidence event on January 2.

The preliminary report by ISRO's National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), which has since been taken off its website, said the land subsidence was slow between April and November 2022, during which Joshimath had sunk by 8.9 cm.

In the past week, hundreds of houses have been marked unsafe for living and many locals said living in shelter homes with big families is not sustainable. Cold weather, with a minimum of minus 3 degrees Celsius on average, has only compounded their woes.

Uttarakhand has a long history of natural disasters. Earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, and flash floods have claimed thousands of lives in the past.

Over 1,000 people were killed in such extreme weather events between 2010 and 2020. Many villages in the state have been marked unsafe for living.

Joshimath is a gateway to several Himalayan mountain climbing expeditions, trekking trails, and pilgrim centres like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, and the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO world heritage site. The town is also strategically important as it connects with the China border.

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