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A part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off on Sunday morning at Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district and triggered a massive flood that breached two hydropower projects near the Naina Devi National Park, about 300km north of Dehradun, killing at least seven people and leaving around 150 missing and feared dead.

It was the biggest glacial lake outburst since June 2013, when flash floods caused the death of an estimated 5,700 people in and around the Kedarnath shrine in Uttarakhand, highlighting the impact of climate change and continuing degradation of the ecology in the fragile upper reaches of the mountainous northern Indian state.

At least seven people were confirmed to have died in Sunday’s disaster and 150 workers engaged on two hydropower projects were missing and feared to have perished. Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said as many as 30 workers engaged in the Rishi Ganga hydel dam project located close to the glacial lake were among the missing. “Two policemen are also missing," he told reporters on Sunday evening after reviewing relief and rescue operations.

Rawat said 176 people were working on NTPC Ltd’s under-construction hydropower project in Tapovan, around 5km downstream, when the disaster struck.

“There are two tunnels there. In one tunnel, there were around 15, in another tunnel, there were around 30 to 35 workers. Thirty-five to forty-five came back and were rescued. One is injured. Rescue work is being carried out with much difficulty with ropes and digging of the muck that has filled the tunnels. But no contact could be made to the trapped workers inside the tunnel. Seven bodies have been recovered so far," he said.

Rawat announced that families of those who died in the disaster will be given 4 lakh each.

Eyewitnesses recalled that such was the force of the water flowing and boulders rolling down from the upper reaches near Raini village that the under-construction Rishi Ganga dam was completely washed away. The debris from there gushed into the Dhauli Ganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda, causing heavy damage to the 530MW Dhauliganga hydel project, just 10km away.

Of the 16 stranded in a tunnel in the NTPC plant, two were rescued through a specially dug trench on Sunday evening. “Rescue operations are on," said Uttarakhand disaster relief force spokesperson Alok Raven.

“The river was flowing 10-15 metres above its normal level and took everything along. Only a few concrete structures on the banks remain of the Rishi Ganga hydel project," said Dhan Singh Rawat, who rushed out of his house in Raini village after hearing a huge explosion.

As videos of the breach went viral, the state government issued an alert on possible flooding in the Ganga river till Haridwar. People living in many places on the banks of the river were being evacuated.

According to the Uttarakhand government, the glacial lake burst was first seen on Sunday morning between 9.30 am and 10 am.

Soon afterwards, disaster relief teams from its local base in Joshimath rushed to the spot to initiate rescue operations, along with the local police force. Later they were joined by the army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel from nearby bases, officials said. Five teams of the National Disaster Response Force were also flown in to assist in the rescue work, officials said.

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