Shimla/New Delhi, June 26: A long spell of snowfall and an abnormal rise in temperature have conspired to send a mountain of water roaring down the Sutlej, putting a 200-km stretch in Himachal Pradesh at risk and shutting down a power plant that feeds most of northern India.
Rapid melting of a cluster of glaciers in the region is being seen as the reason behind the sudden spurt in the water level.
“The water level of the Sutlej has gone up three times during the last three days. It is now 11 metres above normal,” an official said.
The level started to dip late tonight but officials said the high alert would stay in place.
At least 10 bridges have been washed away and several houses submerged. No casualty has been reported yet but property valued at Rs 100 crore has been damaged. Around 5,000 villagers have been evacuated till late tonight.
At 9 pm, the surging water swept into Rampur, 130 km from Shimla and close to the Sutlej. Other areas on alert include Kinnaur, Mandi and Kullu.
The Nathpa Jhakri hydro power project, which supplies electricity to Delhi and eight other northern states, has been shut down since Saturday following the discharge of a heavy amount of silt. The closure will result in a revenue loss of between Rs 8 and 9 crore a day.
The crisis has a cross-border dimension, too, as one of the tributaries of the Sutlej, the Pare Chu, flows downstream from Tibet, where an artificial lake has formed. If the lake ' formed by a landslide ' bursts, the water level in the Sutlej will spin out of control and the crisis will escalate.
The Chinese ambassador in India, who called on chief minister Virbhadra Singh yesterday, has assured India of regular updates on the lake’s status. A similar spectre last year had caused some degree of tension between the neighbouring countries.
Delhi had proposed to send experts to the other side to find out the exact reason for the floods in Himachal Pradesh but Beijing was in no mood to entertain an Indian team. The ice melted later and it was agreed that the two countries will work closely with each other if they face a similar situation in future.
Meteorological experts blamed the unusual rise in temperature this year for the melting of the glaciers. Besides, the area witnessed heavy snowfall this year.
“The average daily temperature in many areas of Kinnaur district has touched between 30 and 32 degrees,” said S.P. Bhardwaj, a meteorologist. Normally, the temperature in Kinnaur hovers around 20 degrees in June. “Also, it continued to snow till May-end,” he added.
The Centre held an emergency meeting of top officials in Delhi to assess the situation and put the army and air force on alert. At least 30 helicopters have been kept on stand-by.
Officials said the situation is not being described as “highly dangerous” but precautionary measures are being taken.
“Nearly 5,000 people from three villages along the 200-km stretch of the Sutlej have been evacuated to safer places,” home secretary V.K. Duggal said after the hour-long meeting.
Duggal could not say whether there was a possibility of a breach on the Pare Chu. “This could be confirmed only tomorrow after the satellite pictures are made available to us,” the home secretary said. “We have also informed the Chinese authorities who have promised all necessary help.”
Sonia in Shimla
Congress chief and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is holidaying at a private cottage near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh.
Sonia, accompanied by daughter Priyanka and her family, reached Shimla today for the five-day break. Officials said that till Sunday evening, she had not been advised to change her schedule in the state.