Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh

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The fact that climate change is impacting the environment globally, but in an ecologically fragile zone like Ladakh, it is more discern able. Global warming is threatening the formation of ice everywhere and researchers believe that it is the Himalayan glaciers which are shrinking quickly than any other on earth.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 1/9 by Swati Jain

Life in Ladakh has been tough. Braving the dry and harsh weather, 80 percent of Ladakh population depends on farming which requires adequate water. Being a rain deficient area, Ladakh receives an average 50mm of rainfall each year, thus making people dependent on the glacier water which melts during the month of June. The problem is the farmers face extreme water shortage during the crucial sowing season between March and May, from this source

Some of the adjoining villages traditionally followed a system wherein the first village which falls in the line of the streams flowing down from the mountain, would irrigate all its fields. After which they would release the remaining water to the other village which is at a lower altitude. As a result, the down height villages would face water shortage and took to drip irrigation.

But climate change is making this land even drier, leaving farmers without water in the crucial planting months of April and May, right before the glaciers start to melt in the summer sun.

In 2014 a local mechanical engineer, Sonam Wangchuk, set out to solve the water crisis of the Ladakh.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 2/9 by Swati Jain
Sonam Wangchuk. Pic Courtesy- His FB Page

“The only reason people can live in Ladakh is the glaciers. Ladakh livelihood majorly depends on farming and the water shortage is only adding to the woes” Wangchuk said

Wangchuk had a simple idea. He wanted to balance this natural deficit by collecting water from melting snow in the cold months, which would normally go to waste, and store it until spring, just when farmers need it the most. He then built a two-story prototype of an ice stupa, a cone of ice that he named after the traditional mound-like sacred monuments that are found throughout Asia.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 3/9 by Swati Jain

The revolutionary aspect of the ice stupa is that it works even at low altitude and in very warm temperatures, does providing the locals with somewhat sign of relief

The idea didn’t stick him until he saw the chunk of ice: still hanging, improbably, beneath the bridge, long after the shards around it had melted.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 4/9 by Swati Jain

In that moment, he says, “I understood that it was not the warmth of the sun that was melting the ice. It was the direct sunlight.”

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 5/9 by Swati Jain

The vision which Wangchuck saw that day was released four years ago, when he unveiled his first ice stupa. For this remarkable feat, he even won an innovation prize of £80,000 by Rolex.

Traditional Practices

Wangchuk is not the first to try bringing a sustainable source of water supply from the mountains. For centuries, inhabitants of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges have practiced “Glacier Grafting”,chipping away at existing ice and pooling the pieces at higher altitudes, hoping to create new glaciers that can supply streams throughout the growing season. Apocryphally, villagers in the 13th century build such glaciers across mountain passes to stop the advance of Genghis Khan.

About a decade ago, another engineer from Ladakh Mr. Chewang Norphel, who earned the nickname of “iceman of Ladakh”, built artificial glaciers to help solve the problem of water shortage in Ladakh.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 6/9 by Swati Jain

He used network of pipes to divert melt water into artificial lakes on shaded sides of the mountain. The water would freeze at night, creating glaciers that grew each day as new water flowed into the basin. Norphel created 11 reservoirs that supplied water to 10,000 people. But these glaciers had limitation …

Norphel’s glaciers being flat, with a large surface area, melted too fast.

Mr. Norphel work to an extend, inspired Wangchuk to start afresh.

“The problem was that it couldn’t be done in lower altitudes, where people actually live,” says Wangchuk. He explained further “I saw the problems that the people were facing. The artificial glaciers were built at a very high altitude and villagers were reluctant to climb so high. I wondered why we couldn’t construct glaciers right there in the village. The temperature is low enough to keep the water frozen – we just needed a smart way to make these glaciers,”

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 7/9 by Swati Jain

In 2014, Wangchuk, with a team of SECMOL students constructed a prototype on the banks of Indus River at an altitude of 10,400 feet — the warmest possible location and the lowest possible altitude. If it could work here, it could work anywhere.

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.

“The ice needed to be shaded – but how?” he says. “We couldn’t have it under a bridge, or use reflectors, which aren’t practical at scale. So we thought of this conical shape: making ice shade itself.”

The conical shape hit a sweet spot, maximising the volume of ice which can grow, while minimising the surface area exposed to direct sunlight, which means it keeps melting well into the spring, releasing up to 50,000 litres of water each day by “storing it in the sky”, Wangchuk says.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 8/9 by Swati Jain

“We faced many problems during the operation. The pipes would freeze, the quality of which was sub-standard. The situation was salvaged when Jain Irrigation stepped in to quickly supply good quality pipes”. “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’.” He said

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 worked on gravitational pressure. The water would freeze instantly in 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 of the biggest man-made ice structure.

Photo of Sonam Wangchuk- The Face behind the Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh 9/9 by Swati Jain

Word spread quickly drawing curiosity, interest and support. His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey, the head of Phyang monastery with an abiding concern for the environment, saw its great promise.

“Because it resembles something we have in our tradition, it is made more close to the population, to their hearts,” he says.

The simple idea of these men has received acclaim across the globe clearly indicating that if man is the one responsible for disturbing nature, he has the capacity to save it as well

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