Artificial glaciers aid agriculture here, thanks to remarkable enterprise
Dechen Dolker, Leh, Ladakh
September 12, 2017

Necessity is the mother of invention. For Ladakhi farmers, nothing is more necessary than water availability during the sowing season which falls between March and May. However, glaciers at high attitudes melt only at the height of summer, in June. The glacial melt is of no use for farmers, coming as it does after the sowing season is over. This triggered off a chain of experiments in water conservation and artificial glaciers, pioneered by Chewang Norphel, better known as the Ice Man of India, and brought to fruition by Sonam Wangchuk

Efforts in water conservation in Ladakh eventually culminated in the construction of an ‘ice stupa’ in Phyang Village that stores and provides water for the crucial springtime sowing. The man behind the stupa is Sonam Wangchuk, a leading innovator in the region who won the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work.

Ice stupas are essentially artificial glaciers in conical shapes. They provide water when it is most needed for agriculture. They could provide the answer to greening of the icy desert in the Himalayan zone.

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The ice stupa holds promise of water in spring

“When I was young there was a lot of snow and rain. The mountains were white till the end of May. But now the snow is less and the mountains are mostly green. It also rains a lot more now. That’s also why they are green,” explains Tundup Wangail, 80, a farmer in Phyang Village, a vast windswept terrain surrounded by mountain peaks in Leh District, Ladakh. Rinchen Wangdus, 51, from the same village says: “Year after year, air pollution from vehicles and machines is melting our glaciers and ice caps at a very fast rate.”

Climate change is a global phenomenon but in an ecologically fragile zone like Ladakh it is more discernable. The change is most evident when you consider easy access to water. Traditionally, adjoining villages such as Phyang and Phey had a unique system of sharing water. The first village in the line of streams flowing down from the mountain heights is Phyang. The village would irrigate all its fields, then let the water flow down to Phey. Phey then faced water shortage and took to drip irrigation.

Increasingly, however, there are new challenges. Agriculture in the icy desert region is being fed almost exclusively by snow and glacial melts.

The catch is that natural glaciers found at high altitudes (18000 feet and more) begin to melt only in the middle of June. Thus, during the crucial sowing season between March and May, there is water shortage from the glacier source.

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The ice stupa holds promise of water in spring.

Chewang Norphel, a former engineer in the Jammu and Kashmir Department for Rural Development, observed that under the relentless sun at the height of summer, glaciers would melt fast. There was no way to store or harvest the water gushing down. He figured that if glaciers could be ‘created’ in shady areas, at lower altitudes, they would not melt so fast. And water from glaciers would be available to the communities for irrigation.

This was the germ of an idea that led Norphel to divert waters to flatter, shadier areas and create a small wonder – the artificial glacier. Unlike its natural counterpart at high altitudes, these glaciers would stay frozen till early spring and then provide water for irrigation during the sowing season.

Norphel’s pioneering work in the mid-1990s won him acclaim as the Ice Man of India. Significantly, it triggered an interest amongst other innovators. Sonam Wangchuk, apromoter of alternative technologies and pedagogy, the founder of Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), took up the gauntlet.

Norphel’s glaciers being flat, with a large surface area, melted too fast. Wangchuk hit upon the idea of constructing vertical cones of ice to reduce surface area, slow down the melting and make the water last longer. In 2014, Wangchuk, with a team of SECMOL students, constructed a prototype on the banks of Indus River at an altitude of 10400 feet, the warmest possible location and the lowest possible altitude. If it could work here, it could work anywhere.

Says Dadul, a member of the construction team,” We faced many problems – the pipes would freeze and their quality was sub-standard. The situation was salvaged when Jain Irrigation stepped in to quickly supply good quality pipes. Dadul’s face, however, lights up as he says “No electricity has been used to pump the water to a higher level. The structure relies on the principles of water finding its own level.

Long pipes dug six feet deep brought water from an upstream river during the winter months to the site. The water gushing out from the ground through a pipe to reach the tip was powered by gravitational pressure. The water would freeze instantly on contact with the sub-zero temperature of Ladakh.

A conical scaffolding gave the glacier its shape that gradually reached a height of 64 feet. It broke the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest manmade ice structure. The first vertical artificial glacier became famous as the ‘ice stupa’. Stupa, because its shape was like the mounds used to house relics and for meditation in the Buddhist tradition.

Word spread quickly drawing curiosity, interest and support. His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey, head of the Phyang monastery with an abiding concern for the environment, saw its great promise. With his support, a large tract of land was made available in Phyang to upscale the prototype.

The ice stupa would move from its ‘nursery’ to the world beyond. The project was crowdfunded, and $125000 raised through Indiegogo, an international crowdfunding website. The construction was completed in 2015. It was truly a spectacular sight, the glacier towering over fields and homesteads in Phyang. It lived up to its promise and made water available during the crucial sowing months from March to May when glacial melt from natural glaciers was not flowing down.

The gigantic ice structure that does not use concrete, electricity or dams neither during construction nor for water harvesting changed the face of Phyang, The area would have been an arid zone otherwise. The funds from Sonam Wangchuk’s Rolex Award for Enterprise were used to promote the structures as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique.

The problem of melting glaciers and water shortages is an endemic one and globally there is a search for solutions that are organic, ecologically sound and thus scalable. The project at Phyang is a winner on these crucial counts and promises to be the one to show the way.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features.)

July 2017