The cold desert area of Ladakh has gradually started greening as enterprising residents of the area have discovered the technique of building ice stupas (artificial glaciers) that not only store water for irrigation but can also be an answer to the challenge of melting glaciers.
The ice stupa technique to conserve water was developed by a local engineer, Chewang Norphel, by building 12 artificial glaciers in 2012. The largest glacier created by him was in the Phuktsey village near Leh.
Inspired by Norphal’s work, Sonam Wangchuk introduced the prototype method to build the ice stupa that was a solution to the water crisis faced by Ladakhi farmers during the critical planting season of April and May before the natural glacial melt water starts flowing.
The idea behind artificial glaciers is to freeze and hold the water that keeps flowing downstream throughout winter. The technology that is simple can also be adopted by farmers in the Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh that are also cold deserts with similar topography.
Fresh artificial glaciers have been built in the Phyang valley near Leh where youth of the area are involved in the innovative work.
According to Wangchuk, the ice formation has been named ice stupa because it resembles the traditional stupas of Ladakh and Tibet. These ice mountains are built when the temperature in Ladakh dips to -20 to -30 degrees Celsius.
Residents of the cold desert have started feeling the pinch of the natural glaciers becoming smaller resulting in less water in early spring and lots more during the summer.
The idea of artificial glaciers is not new; elderly people of the area say that residents of Ladakh and Baltistan used to graft artificial glaciers at a height of above 14,000 feet but their method was not very scientific. However, Norphel worked on freezing waste water in vast fields in winter.
After discussing the issue with Norphel, Wangchuk started working on a new approach in which glaciers were free of location, frequent maintenance and shading requirements. The stream water was vertically frozen by him in the shape of 30 to 50 metre towers just near the village where irrigation was required. This required little investment of laying pipes to carry water to the desired location.
This method to create the ice stupa is based on the gravity system by blowing water up in the air with pipes which freezes by the time it touches the ground.
In order to test the idea in 2014 at the SECMOL Alternative Institute, a prototype was built at a place fully exposed to sunlight in the Phey village.
An NGO, Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, is involved in carrying forward the path shown by Wangchuk who was awarded the Rolex Award for his enterprise in 2016.