Mysterious Disaster in India Seen from Space

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The village of Rambara is one of scores that were wiped off the map by the monsoon-triggered floods and debris flows in northern India last month.

It has taken some time for the news to come out of India, but there has been a major landslide disaster that has claimed an estimated 6,000 lives. In the remote, mountainous north of the country, steep slopes have given way and launched flows of rock and water that have destroyed or seriously damaged some 240 villages and small towns.

A very good place to get the details of the events, as well as analysis of the causes over the last few weeks, is via The Landslide Blog, by landslide expert Dave Petley of Durham University in the United Kingdom (full disclosure: I am the AGU blogosphere manager, where Petley’s blog appears).

Among the dead are pilgrims, tourists and residents of a number of villages, including the temple town of Kedarnath. The cause of the disaster is the exceptionally heavy monsoon rains that have hit the region. Videos of the actual flooding can be seen here.

One Indian government official put the estimated death toll at 5,748 people. The Indian military has been hard at work in rescue operations, although in many cases there was little people could do but run for higher ground, as Petley illustrates in an account from the town of Rambara, which was below Kedarnath:

People were scrambling up the mountainside in desperation as the water rose in volume and ferocity.“Then, I saw a little boy, 6-7 years old, who was trying to climb the mountain holding his mother’s hand slip and go sliding into the river,” said Ghanshyam. “The mother looked back and then fell herself.”  Ghanshyam helped his wife up a few feet on the mountainside, the path below them fast dissolving. Both of them held on to little cracks in the rock, and wedged their feet where they could. A few feet above, trees offered more protection but neither had the energy to reach them. “Everywhere, people screamed ‘help me, save me,’” said Ghanshyam. “But no one could have helped anyone here. If anyone reached out to grab someone else, they would both fall to their death. People were falling off like pebbles….We did not expect to see the morning.”

Before and after aerial and satellite images suggest to Petley that the village of Rambara, like many others, was completely destroyed. Many additional visitors were in the area in June to visit the remote Hindu shrines in Uttarakhand, which was also hit hard. The landslides washed away hotels and roads during the peak pilgrimage time.

Work is now underway to help survivors and restore drinking water, electricity, roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure.

Before and after images: Indian National Remote Sensing Center