Almost after 75 days of the devastating Rishiganga–Dhauliganga flash flood tragedy of February 7, 2021 that killed 204 persons and devastated two hydropower projects, including one of 520 MW capacity at Tapoban, the region was once again in the headlines due to yet another disaster.
General dynamics of avalanche, and landslide are similar, and avalanche can be understood as a downslope movement of ice, and snow under the influence of earth’s gravitational force. So, in an avalanche it is ice, and snow in place of rock, and debris of a landslide. An avalanche can thus be understood as an ice-snow laden landslide. Like landslide avalanche is also a commonly occurring phenomenon in the mountainous regions; it however takes place at higher altitudes where ice and snow are available in abundance.
After a prolonged cold, and dry spell during the winter season of 2020-21, Uttarakhand experienced rains in the last week of April, 2021 with higher elevations receiving snow. It was after this spell of precipitation there occurred a major avalanche on April 23, 2021 around 1600 hrs some 4 km ahead of Sumna in the valley of Girthiganga river, a tributary of Dhauliganga river.
Though devoid of habitations this valley is strategically important as it leads to Sino-India border, and therefore Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is constructing a road along this valley; Joshimath – Malari -Girthi Dobla – Sumna – Rimkhim road.
As there are no habitations in this region almost all the persons engaged in construction works are recruited and brought from outside, and it is a common practice to set up temporary camps along the proposed road alignment for housing the labourers, and others engaged in the construction works. Location of these camps is often decided by availability of flat ground, source of water, and proximity to the construction site. 384 labourers were housed in one such temporary camp some 4 km ahead of Sumna in Girthiganga valley of Chamoli district.
Due to the snowfall during the previous days the construction work was put on hold and almost all the 384 labourers were in this ill fated camp. It was in the evening of April 23, 2021 that the snow accumulated on the valley slope above the camp started to move. As this mass of snow rolled down it gained both momentum, and mass, and the occupants of the ill fated camp were taken by surprised as fast moving mass of snow overwhelmed the camp. Every thing in the path of the avalanche was obliterated and there was no trace of the occupants.
Search and rescue work was initiated immediately by BRO officials and the local administration was informed of the mishap. Bad weather conditions and disrupted road connectivity however delays reinforcement. 7 persons injured in the incidence were shifted for medical care to Joshimath, while efforts were made to rescue the ones missing in the incidence.
It needs to be noted that searching persons in avalanche debris is not really easy as the snow tends to solidify very soon and after this survival remains a function of the size of air pockets created consciously by the trapped person around him before the snow solidifies. This however requires acquaintance with avalanche survival dos and don’ts. Moreover, exposed to low temperatures the trapped person often suffers from hypothermia and frost bite.
Despite continuous search operations none of the 18 persons who went missing could be saved, and the last body could only be retrieved after 10 days of the incidence on May 4, 2021.
It is important to note that this is not the first incidences wherein a camp established on the road side has been devastated by landslide, avalanche, or flood. In the past the region has witnessed many similar incidences, and in April 2003 an avalanche around Sumna killed 11 Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel.