Manveena Suri | 27th January 2019

For years, residents in the northern Indian city of Joshimath have complained to local officials that their homes are sinking. Since approximately 100 families had to be evacuated in the previous week, authorities were compelled to act and hasten the arrival of experts to ascertain the cause.

Hundreds of homes are now uninhabitable due to cracks running through the city, and some worry that India may lose a vital entryway for pilgrimages for religious purposes and tourism excursions on adjacent mountain trails.

Joshimath, which is in the state of Uttarakhand in the northeast, is surrounded by two rivers and perched on the Himalayan Mountains, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides, and erosion, according to environmental experts.

According to Sameer Kwatra, head of policy for the India division of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “subsidence,” often known as the sinking or settling of the Earth’s surface, “is geologically prone to Joshimath, and many other towns in the Himalayas.”

Kwatra continued, “Large-scale development projects as well as climate-induced flash floods and excessive rains are exacerbating the natural conditions that put Joshimath, home to over 25,000 people, at risk of sinking.”

During a geological survey of Joshimath in August 2022, a team of scientists, geologists, and researchers assembled by the state government of Uttarakhand noted that locals had reported an accelerated rate of land erosion that year, which was largely attributed to heavy rainfall in October 2021 and catastrophic flash flooding earlier that year, raising concerns about the effects of climate change on the area.

Numerous homes in Joshimath had significant damage, according to the survey, and others were “unsafe for human habitation” and constituted a “severe risk” to the people living there.

The assessment suggested halting construction in several sections and cited obvious fissures in walls, floors, and along numerous routes as signs that the city was sinking. With “further developmental activities in the area … restricted to the extent possible.”

Construction in the area went ahead despite the advice up until last week. All building projects in Joshimath, including those on a bypass road and the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project, were temporarily halted on January 5 by the district administration. On the Dhauliganga River, which largely abuts Joshimath’s eastern side, a hydropower station is being built. Some locals and environmental specialists feel that the project’s tunneling construction may have made the soil erosion worse.

On January 5, the day building was halted, NTPC reportedly released a statement in which it said: “NTPC wants to announce with full responsibility that the tunnel has nothing to do with the landslide occuring in Joshimath city.”

The tunnel, which is approximately a kilometer from the town and roughly a kilometer deep, was finished more than a decade ago, according to NTPC, and there are no current signs of sinking on the surface close to it.

Families forced to flee

A year ago, Suraj Kaparuwan, a 38-year-old businessman who owns a small hotel in Joshimath, told CNN that cracks started forming in his home’s walls and in his field, but that things had gotten worse recently.

“About a year ago, hairline fissures in the field first appeared. Over time, especially the past two months, they have gotten wider. Currently, they are roughly three feet broad, Kaparuwan told CNN.

The wife and two sons of Kaparuwan’s family left Joshimath on Wednesday night for Srinagar Garhwal, a city further south in the same state.

Initially, Kaparuwan stayed behind to join what he claimed were thousands of Joshimath locals and supporters from other villages protesting in front of neighborhood government structures, demanding an end to the construction and fair compensation for those who had to leave their houses.

Local authorities informed Kaparuwan on Monday that his house was in a “risk zone” and that he needed to leave. Given that the hotel’s upcoming reservations have been canceled, Kaparuwan told CNN that he intends to move all of his personal items there while he waits to learn what Joshimath’s future holds.

We shall hope for a fresh start for everything, but it will depend on the government’s actions, the speaker added.

According to a report released by the district administration on Thursday, there were cracks in 760 structures and 589 people had been evacuated.

Last Saturday, Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, visited the damaged districts and looked inside people’ homes who were concerned the buildings would collapse.

After viewing the region, Dhami informed reporters that “everyone’s safety is our top priority.”

Sinking city reaches new lows

The land subsidence in Joshimath is “not a new phenomenon,” Ranjit Sinha, the state of Uttarakhand’s secretary for disaster management, told CNN last week. He went on to explain: “The soil is quite loose. The load is too heavy for the soil.

Joshimath and its surrounding areas have been sinking at a pace of 6.5 centimeters (2.5 inches) each year, according to a two-year research by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, carried out between July 2020 and March 2022.

Local authorities claim that compared to earlier cracks, the new ones are bigger and more numerous.

The cracks that first appeared a year ago “were widening very slowly and gradually,” according to Himanshu Khurana, magistrate of the Chamoli district, which includes Joshimath, but “what happened in the past one month particularly from around December 15 was a different phenomenon in different locations.”

When questioned, Khurana said he hoped experts would find out and provide a solution “quite rapidly,” but he was unable to specify what caused the unexpected spread of cracks in December.

The task of analyzing the situation in Joshimath has been given to experts from the National Disaster Management Authority, National Institute of Disaster Management, Geological Survey of India, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, the National Institute of Hydrology, and the Central Building Research Institute.

According to Khurana, several of those teams had already arrived in the city on Friday and were ready to get to work.

Their discoveries may benefit not only Joshimath and neighboring Himalayan communities, but also other communities with comparable topography that may be in danger of sinking in the future.

Joshimath’s issues are not uncommon and are likely to become more widespread if the world fails to slow the increase in global temperatures, according to Kwatra of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Joshimath’s situation serves as another another reminder that unless immediate, audacious, and decisive action is taken to reduce emissions, the already terrible effects of climate change will only get worse.

The long-time resident of Joshimath, Kaparuwan, described his hopes for the future as “shattered.”

I’m not sure what will happen after this, he said. “My current circumstance is really bleak,” she said.

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