Four months after it was formed by a landslide during winter, the Phutkal lake in Jammu and Kashmir's Kargil district burst around 8am on Thursday, triggering a flash flood requiring all people living 90 kilometres downstream to be moved to safety.
The spot is 230 kilometres from Kargil town but close to the district’s Zanskar area, which is popular worldwide for the Chadar (white sheet) ice trek over frozen rivers. “There is no immediate report of loss to life,” Kargil deputy commissioner Hassan Khan told a national news agency. While around 29 families (nearly 300 people) were evacuated from the inaccessible area when the blockade was formed, hundreds were evacuated early Thursday; and after an early warning, 5,000 moved to higher reaches.
An aerial shot of the blocked Phuktal river in Kargil. (Photo credits: Executive councillor of tourism and zanskar affairs, LAHDC, Kargil)
“Eight foot bridges and two motorable one were washed away; but water has not entered any village where evacuation was suspended for winter,” said Kargil senior superintendent of police Shaliender Kumar Misra. Reports suggest that Zanskar’s administrative centre of Padum, from where people had been evacuated, has drowned. “The area is out of reach but the impact on the Pakistani side is likely to be severer,” said Kargil-based reporter Basharat Ahmad.
When a 200-feet-high landslide dam, as tall as a 20-floor building, had created this lake in January over the Phutkal, a tributary of the Zanskar river, experts had predicted a catastrophe if it burst and suggested controlled blasting to eliminate the danger before it swelled. Last month, the army had claimed to have blasted a channel through the fallen rocks to let water run downstream.
Response team on the spot
The central and state disaster management agencies now have reached the spot to control the release of the accumulated water to soften the blow to the downstream areas. The people moved out of Padum are anxious to see the damage.
Central Water Commission director VD Roy leads the response team. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had reviewed the state’s contingency plan to deal with the imminent eco-disaster in the mountainous region and suggested measures including migration from Padum.
The NDMA was first to suggest controlled blasting of the rocks that blocked the river, besides digging a channel to release the accumulated water. Since January 17, trekking in the area is banned, affecting porters, guides, and many other people. The blockage has also reduced the water level in the Zanskar and Indus rivers, which can affect the production of hydroelectricity at the Nimoo-Bazgo and Alchi projects in the neighbouring Leh district.
Safe-spot hunt on since Jan
Ever since the landslide, the administration was hunting for safe spots for rehabilitation. It had installed a sophisticated communication and alarm system at Phutkal with much hardship, since the area remains cut-off long after each snowfall.
Where the lake is formed: 5.5km from Shaday Sumdo towards Marshan in Kargil; it’s 90 km from the Padam area of Zanskar, 43km beyond anyone has gone by foot
When was it formed: On January 15, after landslide
How big was it: The lake extended up to 10km from the site with a height of 50m
How much water it had: About 240-lakh cubic metres, enough to fill 9,600 Olympic-size swimming pools
How big is the blockage now: 600m long, 50-to-60m wide, and 50m thick
What’s the impact: At least 3,000 people have had to flee home; the famous Chadar ice trek is banned since January, affecting porters, guides, and other people; hydroelectricity projects downstream were affected since the landslide.
(With agency inputs)