In the early morning of January 2, Prakash Bhotiyal awoke to a “loud sound” at his home in Joshimath, a small mountain town in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand state in northern India.
The 52-year-old tailor turned on the light and looked around his newly built two-story home to find gaping cracks in the brick walls in nine of the 11 rooms. The panicked extended family of 11 quickly moved into two rooms where only thin cracks appeared on the walls. They’ve been stuck there ever since.
“We don’t sleep until late. A quiet sound causes panic. We go to bed ready to leave in an emergency,” says Bhotiyal.
But it’s not so safe outside either. Officials say the ground is slowly sinking in Joshimath, a hillside town of 20,000 where two valleys meet at 6,151 feet (1,874 m).
Cracks have appeared in more than 670 of some 4,500 buildings – including the local temple and cable car – in an area that officials say is 350 meters wide. Cracks appear in the sidewalks and streets. The two hotels now lean against each other. Water flows out of farms for reasons that are not entirely clear.
About 80 families have been moved from their homes to schools, hotels and private accommodation in the city. Disaster response teams arrived and helicopters were commandeered to airlift evacuees as needed.
“Saving lives is our priority,” said Pushkar Singh Dhami, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.
But given how people live here, that’s easier said than done.
After cracks appeared in the walls and floors of the squat three-room home of Durga Prasad Saklani, a 52-year-old salaried employee, officials moved his extended family of 14 to a local hotel.
But the Saklani return to their sinking home during the day, where they cook meals and feed the cows in the courtyard, which itself has sunk more than two feet. In desperation, they placed logs against the walls to prevent them from collapsing. Mr. Saklani’s wife recently had surgery at a local clinic, and the family doesn’t know how she can recover in a cramped hotel room.
“We watch our house slowly crumble, the cracks getting bigger every day. It is a terrifying sight,” says Neha Saklani, a family member.
The crisis should not have come as a surprise.
Joshimath itself was born in uncertain geological conditions. The city, located on the middle slope of a hill, was built on the rubble of a landslide caused by an earthquake more than a century ago and is located in an earthquake-prone zone.
The earth can start to sink for various reasons. These include the movement of the earth’s crust (thin outer rock crust) or an earthquake, which can cause an altitude shift. A karst hole – a depression or hole in the ground caused by the collapse of the surface layer – can occur when water flowing underground erodes rocks below the surface.
But the land is also sinking due to human activities such as over-extraction of groundwater and drainage of aquifers – which geologists believe may have sunk Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, faster than any other city in the world. According to the US Geological Survey, more than 80% of land subsidence worldwide is caused by over-extraction of groundwater.
Human activity seems to be primarily responsible for Joshinath’s misfortunes. For decades, a lot of water was pumped out of the ground for agricultural purposes, making the sand and stones brittle. As the soil subsides, the city slowly sinks. “The situation is alarming,” says geologist DP Dobhal.
As early as 1976, a government study warned that Joshimath was sinking and recommended a ban on heavy construction work in the area. It was pointed out that the lack of proper drainage facilities leads to landslides. “Joshimath is not fit for the city,” study warns.
But the warning was not heeded. Over the decades, the site has exploded into a busy gateway for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists. The pilgrims were heading to the Hindu temple of Badrinath, about 45 km away. Tourists hike, climb and ski in the region. Hotels, boarding houses and restaurants proliferated.
There are also many hydropower projects under construction around the city. Roads were laid and tunnels were dug to improve connectivity and build infrastructure. The main concern is the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, whose tunnel crosses “the entire geologically sensitive area below Joshimath,” according to geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela in Disaster hooms large over Joshimath, a 2010 article published in Current Science.
Geologists noted that in December 2009, drilling equipment for the project penetrated the aquifer at Joshimath, resulting in the daily discharge of approximately 70 million liters of groundwater per day (until repaired), enough to sustain up to three million people. (In 2021, one of the two tunnels connected to the hydroelectric project was blocked after a massive flood in Uttarakhand, which left more than 200 people dead and missing.)
Geologists say that with its valleys, gorges, hills and rivers, the mountainous state of Uttarakhand – where Joshimath is located – offers a “gentle landscape”.
The state has a long history of natural disasters. More than 1,300 people lost their lives in just five adverse events – earthquakes and landslides – between 1880 and 1999. According to official figures, between 2000 and 2009, landslides, cloudbursts and flash floods claimed the lives of at least 433 people. Between 2010 and 2020, 1,312 people died in such extreme weather events. About 400 villages were declared unsafe to live.
According to a study by Sushil Khanduri, a climate official, “This is mainly attributed to changes in weather conditions and abnormal rainfall patterns, as well as massive human initiatives in high-risk areas,” noted Khanduri.
Today, the people of Joshimath are on their heels. After how long will the earth swallow their houses? After all, subsidence can be a slow process. No one knows for sure how many inches or feet the soil has subsided over the decades. There are no studies on how much a city can sink over time.
More importantly, can Joshimath be saved? A local activist quoted a senior official as saying that as many as 40% of the city’s population would have to be evacuated if the sinking continued. “If this is true, it will be difficult to save the rest of the city,” says Atul Sati.