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At least 40 people dead after glacial lake flooding in Himalayas

A glacial lake outburst and flash floods in the Himalayas have left at least 40 people dead, Reuters says. Rescuers are still searching for the missing.

The disaster occurred on Wednesday when a cloudburst triggered heavy rains and an avalanche, causing flooding on the Teesta river and the outflow of Lhonak Lake in the mountainous northeastern state of Sikkim.

It is one of the worst disasters in the region in 50 years and the latest in a string of extreme weather events that have caused widespread devastation in the South Asian Himalayas in recent years. Scientists believe climate change is the cause of the disaster.

Sikkim authorities said the latest disaster, which occurred on the eve of the popular holiday and tourist season in the picturesque state, had affected the lives of 22,000 people.

Scientists and government agencies have been developing an early warning system for glacial flooding at Lake Lhonak. If the system were ready, people would have more time to evacuate, officials involved in the project told Reuters.

On Thursday evening, authorities said the death toll in Sikkim stood at 18. Officials in the downstream neighbouring state of West Bengal told Reuters that rescuers had recovered 22 more bodies from the water. About 75 people are still missing. Mr Tseten Bhutia, a state official, told Reuters by telephone:

“Water levels have receded in some areas but north Sikkim has been totally cut off. Relief teams are unable to reach the affected areas there,” Mobile and landline phone networks were not working in the area.”

Mr Bhutia says that about 2,400 people have already been evacuated so far and 7,600 people are being assisted in relief camps. Private and government offices in the area will not operate until 15 October.

The disaster has damaged 15 bridges in the state, severely hampering rescue efforts. All bridges downstream from NHPC’s Teesta-V hydroelectric plant were either flooded or washed away, the Indian government reported. More and more photos are appearing on social media showing paths and roads covered in silt, stranded cars and small muddy streams flowing down hillsides.

As soon as the weather in the region improves, the army plans to evacuate about 1,500 tourists using helicopters. Military equipment, including firearms and explosives, was washed into the Teesta River, a Defence Ministry spokesman said on social media.

Sikkim, a small Buddhist state of about 650,000 people in the mountains between Nepal, Bhutan and China, has been cut off from Siliguri in West Bengal as the main motorway linking it to the rest of the country collapsed.

Cloudbursts happen when more than 10cm (3.94in) of rainfall occurs within 3.86 square miles (10 sq km) within an hour. Although a common occurrence in Himalayan regions, experts have said they are alarmed by the increase in extreme weather-related events in the area.

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