Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Impact of the Teesta Valley Glacial Lake Outburst Flood - Lachen (North Sikkim), the untold story

SaveTheHills (STH) and Junkeri Studio (JS) of Kalimpong have documented the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) disaster of 04Oct2023 extensively in this blog and while doing so we visited numerous places, maybe 20 or so in the Teesta Valley both in W Bengal and Sikkim.
On 17/18Nov2023 we were in Chungthang, North Sikkim where the GLOF destroyed the 1200MW Sikkim Urja dam and saw the humungous devastation there. We interviewed scores of people and photograph them and published the report in our blog – which has been well received all over.
Having gone that far, we were unable to visit Lachen, a small town 39 km north of Chungthang because the roads were totally destroyed by the GLOF. We did make an attempt but the road ceased to exist approximately 5 km north of Chungthang – the road continues to be non-operational even today.

On 17Feb2024 we were fortunate to meet Mr Dathup Lachenpa (DL) a person in the tourism business in Lachen; he had walked across to Chungthang from Lachen because there is still no motorable road.
He was in Kalimpong for brief while and we caught up with him to check how the GLOF impacted town of Lachen. Our interview with Mr Lachenpa:

STH/JS: Welcome, Dathup.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about Lachen and what is the main source of livelihood there?
DL: The approximate population of Lachen is around 2000, the altitude of the town is approximately 9000’ and main source of livelihood is tourism but there are quite a few government contractors and employees as well.
STH/JS: Lachen was the first 'urban' centre which was hit by the GLOF from South Lhonak Glacier on 03Oct2023.Can you tell us whether you had any early warning regarding the floods since we know there was an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) post further north who had issued alerts. Also approximately what time did the GLOF hit Lachen?
DL: I am not sure of the exact time when the GLOF hit us but it must have been around midnight – we were sleeping and heard this sound like a huge wind which woke us up. My home is a little above the town and when I went outside, there was no storm – the weather was quite clear and I could see stars in the sky. Since there was no storm but the loud noise persisted, I suspected something must be happening in the river and then I saw a lot of smoke rising there, that’s when I realized it maybe the river was overflowing or it was a landslide. I never expected the GLOF (from South Lhonak Lake) to be hitting us. I only realized in the morning that this was a major disaster when we went out towards the river and saw how much devastation was caused by the force of the river. At around 12.30am on 04Oct2023, the electricity and cell phone system went off. I expected a lot of damage by the impact but never on this scale of devastation.
STH/JS: How close is Lachen to the Teesta or more correctly Lachen Chu river? Is the town of Lachen on the banks of the river?
DL: Lachen town is located on higher ground, a little above the river.

Lachen town

STH/JS: Was there any destruction or damage to property or were there any fatalities in Lachen due to the GLOF?
DL: Yes, we ourselves lost a new home which we were constructing and I believe two labourers from Border Roads Organization (BRO)were swept away from the banks of the river at Zema.Zema is slightly north of Lachen towards the glacier.
STH/JS: And in all this you did not get any early warning whatsoever?
DL:As far as I know, we did not get any early warning.
STH/JS: Do you know if the government authorities or Phipon (Headman) received any early warning? - the ITBP post near the glacier sent some warnings, were they received at Lachen?
DL: The ITBP camp is located up there at Zanak 2, maybe they informed their people downstream but nobody informed us.
STH/JS: So what you are saying is that the casualties were limited and damage was less only because Lachen town is located at higher ground and the Lachen Chu or the Teesta river flows in a valley below.
DL: Yes
STH/JS: What is the damage to infrastructure and bridges around Lachen?
DL: There was a lot of damage. In Lachen, 4 bridges were washed away. 3 bridges connected Lachen to Chungthang and one connected us to Thangu.
STH/JS: Have these communication lines (bridges) been restored?
DL: Communication towards Thangu has been restored, with an army bailey bridge being constructed, so light vehicular traffic is now possible. This bridge is on the river bed and may not survive the monsoons so they are re-building the other one.
Three bridges towards Chungthang were washed away, so the route has been diverted and now there is only one bridge which has to be crossed at a place called Boonsoi, 10km south of Lachen. This RCC bridge at Boonsoi survived the flood.
STH/DL: We know that the BRO is working on the road from Chungthang northwards to Lachen. I believe the progress of this work is very slow and I also know people from Lachen are working on the road towards Chungthang.
DL: Yes, we (Lachen public) have succesfully completed one portion from Lachen towards Chunthang which was very difficult at a place called Taru. We encountered only solid rock there. The BRO helped us and we have managed to clear that section for vehicular traffic so the road upto Menchithang, a distance of approx 20km from Lachen is motorable. So now we have to walk 7-8kms after which we reach another motorable section towards Chungthang.
In this regard, the Lachenpas made three wooden bridges.

Local people together with BRO personnel carving out a new road from Lachen to Chunthang

The Lachenpa community constructing a wooden bridge across the Teesta river (also called Lachen Chu) at Zema to connect Lachen with Thangu. Notice the large landslide in the background

STH/JS: We know that Lachen was marooned for some time after the GLOF, can you tell us how many days you were totally cut off and how did people in Lachen survive?
DL: At that time almost 70% of the people were in Thangu, harvesting potatoes and radish and the rest were in Lachen. We habitually stock rations and that's how we survived - on stored rations.
STH/JS: Did the army or air force also help in ration supply?
DL: No, but they certainly helped with the evacuation - the relief material came from local people of Sikkim.
STH/JS: Were there any tourists in Lachen at that time and how were they evacuated?
DL: Yes we had around 500 tourists who were stranded in Lachen at that time; they were evacuated by AF choppers from Chatten (army base near Lachen).
STH/JS: What was the impact of the disaster on livelihoods of people?
DL: The impact is huge because we lost a lot of revenue in tourism – Oct to Dec is a big tourist season for us and we have lost these 3 months and we are not certain in 2024 as well, because road access to our area is still not possible.
STH/JS: Fortunately, it did not snow heavily in North Sikkim during this winter and as such you did not have much problems with ice-bound roads etc. How concerned are you about the forthcoming monsoons with the road condition being what it is? How will you manage your supplies?
DL: Getting supplies through thru Dongkha La pass (which is at 18,000’) would be impossible but what people do is that during the annual puja time in winters they buy a lot of rations from monks and stock up – also people in Lachen were stocking up dry rations like oil and rice from Menchithang etc thru porters who would carry the stuff. However, we would have a problem with LPG cylinders (even though we have fire wood) because people largely use gas for cooking these days.
STH/JS: What about health care issues in Lachen after the GLOF?
DL: Yes, this is a major concern. Recently a 27yr old man from Lachen died in a hospital in Siliguri because he had to be evacuated through Dongkha La pass (18,000’) when he was ill; this is a huge challenge for a sick person. So right now, we are most scared of falling sick in Lachen and hope that no one becomes unwell because we only have a primary health centre which does not have many facilities and presently, I don’t think we have a doctor there.
STH/JS: So what happens to the sick and elderly people at Lachen?
DL: (Chuckles) – We just pray that no one falls ill.
STH/JS: What about children’s education?
DL: They were at home during the winter holidays and have now returned to school – some of them went by car through Dongkha La pass others walked back to Chungthang etc – most of them, walked back I think, because they were scared of heights at Dongkha La.
STH/JS: The hikers trail for walking back (between Lachen and Chungthang) seems very precarious
DL: Yes, the footpath for walking is quite dangerous, if one slips there is no chance of survival – at many places the path is not more than a foot wide.
Makeshift wooden ladder which is used while walking from Lachen to Chungthang

Narrow and dangerous footpath which is being used by people who walk from / to Lachen today.

STH/JS: So how long do you from a layman’s perspective, expect the Chungthang – Lachen road to be restored?
DL: Our Chief Minister had promised that after rebuilding the bridge in Chungthang town, all the resources (machinery and manpower) would be diverted to the Lachen road. That has not happened. Yes, machines are there but not the type which is required to cut rock and so on. We were hoping that road communication would be restored within 2-3months but it has been 4 months and progress is very slow. With no heavy earth moving machinery at site, people are saying it may even take a year for the road to be restored.
STH/JS: Immediately after the disaster, were there any homeless people or was there any requirement for relief and shelter?
DL: Some areas and parts of roads especially in the bazar (town) were cracked and people were reluctant to live there, because of rumors and continuous landslides. So people shifted to relative's home at higher grounds near the monastery. However, there were no homes which were destroyed in Lachen.
Relief supplies as far as I can remember, came in after a week or so. I think this was contributions from locals in and around Sikkim and it was flown in by choppers.
STH/JS: Can you tell us more about the Chungthang-Lachen road status again?
DL: Before the GLOF, the Chungthang-Lachen trip used to take 1 hour by vehicle. Now we can travel by vehicle from both Lachen and Chungthang but the midsection is still not motorable and we have to walk that stretch and it takes us around 2hrs. The vehicles used are all SUVs with 4 wheel drive.
Impact on road communications by the GLOF: Lachen-Chungthang road at Menchithang
                                       Landslides along the Lachen Chu (river) valley

STH/JS: You mentioned visiting the Lachen Chu river a number of times after 04Oct2023 – can you describe the scene? Were there any landslides? And how did people from Lachen spend the next few days after the GLOF?
DL: The power supply and mobile networks went dead from 04Oct2023 – people were scared and moved here and there, trying to find out what was happening. We noticed the river was still swelling up and there were lots of landslides taking place in and around. When we went to Zema where there was a bridge which connected Lachen to Thangu, we found that the landscape had changed totally, we could not recognize where the bridge was. The whole day the river was flowing at the same high level.
Two days or so later when we went towards Zema again , we found a huge increase in landslide activity all along the road.
STH/JS: We are aware that a Swiss and Govt of India team had gone upto South Lhonak Glacier (in 2023) – did they go through Lachen?
DL: We heard about that too but I do not know the details. People were in fact blaming them for what happened – and believe that they may have done something. We believe our lakes are sacred and do pujas and visit monasteries while visiting these (holy) places.
STH/JS: Which is the nearest lake from Lachen?
DL: By road, it is Gurudongma lake
STH/JS: How much time would it take to reach South Lhonak lake from Lachen?
DL: Now there is a motorable road to Zanak 2 where they have the last ITBP camp and that takes around 6hrs from Lachen. Beyond that I have no idea.
STH/JS: Do you know whether (the ITBP camp at) Zanak 2 was affected by the GLOF?
DL: I think so, I think I saw some photographs.
STH/JS: Have people returned to Lachen from Thangu?
DL: Yes, its wintertime and its not possible to stay in Thangu. Everyone has returned but some are in Gangtok and others in Siliguri etc and children have returned to school.
STH/JS: What is the approximate economic loss which took place due to the GLOF say in terms of loss of farmland,destruction of orchards etc
DL: I can say we have lost a lot of land – pasture land for example. Our dairy animals go to lower altitudes during winters, to places like Denga which was a little above Chungthang. These areas have been washed away by the GLOF. People are now living on the roadside at Rabong and so on. Further, I think in terms of loss, all of Sikkim has been impacted - shops, hotels and so on . I am sure the loss is huge and in many crores.

                              Destruction of farm and grazing land at Menchithang.
                                               Landslides along the valley at Zema

STH/JS: Do you know of any loss to Govt departments including the army?
DL: Fisheries department have lost some trout farms, animal husbandry department have lost their angora farm, Tibetan sheep have lost their grazing land and so on.

                                    Destruction at army camp at Menchithang

STH/JS: What sort of help have you received from the administration?
DL: It has been four months since the GLOF and we still have not seen the District Magistrate (DM) on site or anywhere. We met the ADC (Additional District Collector) who came to Lachen after 7-8 days, maybe he was representing the DM – we don’t know.
With the help of the Government, the electricity was restored after 8-9days, most probably because we have a new power station in Lachen, which was not affected by the disaster. Our cell phones (only BSNL network) started working after a month or so but the performance was poor, with a lot of disturbances
STH/JS: You mean you had no communication for a month?
DL: No, I think the ADC had come with a satellite phone but I am not sure how many could make calls. We also could use the army lines but that too was difficult because of the long queues of people waiting.
STH/JS: How do you see the next few months with the monsoons coming up?
DL: We are really scared of the monsoons and the heavy rain it will bring. It will affect us a lot and people are thinking of stocking supplies before the rains and we will avoid traveling during that time because of the road conditions.
STH/JS: Can you tell us the cost of travel from Lachen to Chungthang via the Dongkha La pass?
DL: I heard the freight charges of utility (short body) truck bringing supplies from Mangan to Lachen via Dongkha La is Rs 25,000/-
STH/JS: Thank you so much for your time, Mr Dathup Lachenpa and for sharing this information about what happened in Lachen. It will certainly be most useful for people studying the October 2023 GLOF disaster in the Teesta Valley.

Photo credits: Dathup Lachenpa

Praful Rao
Kalimpong district
Darjeeling - Sikkim Himalaya
Praveen Chhetri
Junkeri Studios

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