Words by Athar Parvaiz
Photographs by Greg White
Artificial glaciers in the Himalayas are cracking climate change and making arid terrain more habitable by supplying local villages with fresh water in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
“I want to be a role model for the farmers of my region in organic farming,” says Tsering Motup, a farmer in Shara, a village in the Indian region of Ladakh, gently scratching his scraggly grey beard. Ladakh, some 800 miles northwest of India’s capital, New Delhi, is a high-altitude desert in the western Himalayas, 15,000 feet above sea level.
Humans have been able to survive in this cold desert region, where temperatures can drop to -22° F and average annual precipitation is just four inches, largely by diverting water from glacial runoff. But less snowfall and irregular ice-melting have become almost permanent features in the region over recent years.
For Motup, the availability of water is crucial to becoming a successful organic farmer. While glaciers in the mountains supply melt water annually from July to early September—when the summer heat is at its peak—farmers in the Ladakh Himalayas struggle to find enough water to irrigate their crops during the rest of the year, especially in spring, the start of farming season.
Enter the Ice Stupa Project, a local engineering initiative aimed at bringing fresh water supplies to Himalayan villages at times when the well would otherwise run dry.
Putting the “Ice” in Artifice
Considered highly sacred by Buddhists, stupas—dome-shaped structures often seen as part of temples—dot the landscape around Shara. “They are built everywhere, so that people get a sense of spirituality and get reminded of their responsibilities whenever they see them,” says Nordan Otzer, the Executive Director of the Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group.
This is, no doubt, a factor in environmental engineer Sonam Wangchuk’s choice to shape his artificial glaciers like stupas. In addition to their spiritual relevance and arresting beauty, they serve the purpose of producing water in spring, when water from natural glaciers is absent.
Wangchuk’s innovation is relatively straightforward: Artificial glaciers in the form of towers with heights ranging from 50 to 160 feet (called ice stupas) are built close to villages during the winter months by freezing stream water vertically.
According to Wangchuk, the ice stupas need very little effort and investment (around $1,000) and can easily be created in any village that needs water for agriculture and other uses in spring and early summer.
The ice stupas are formed using glacial stream water carried down from higher ground through buried pipes, the final section of which rises vertically. Due to the difference in height, Wangchuk explains, pressure builds up in the pipe and the water flows up and out from the pipe’s raised tip. When the water hits the sub-zero air, it freezes as it falls to gradually form an ice cone or stupa. In late spring, the melt water is collected in large tanks and then supplied to farmland using a drip-irrigation system.
“I kept thinking about an alternative solution and finally succeeded in storing water way down [in villages],” Wangchuk says. The idea was inspired by the artificial glaciers of Ladakh’s first “Ice Man,” Chewang Norphel. Now 84, while working as an engineer 30 years ago, Norphel found a solution to Ladakhian farmers’ water woes with massive ice dams created to more efficiently use melting ice water. These dams would later serve as the prototype for Wangchuk’s localized stupas.
Extracting Hope for Farmers
Motup is waiting for the day when his village has the services of “at least two to three” ice stupas. A towering stupa near the edge of the mountain over his village provides just a trickle of water, as the weather in Ladakh has remained unexpectedly cold this year, even in the month of June.
“It is June, but the weather still stays cloudy every day. How can the ice stupas melt? If there were at least two or three ice stupas, a trickle from each of them would suffice,” Motup says. “Still, even this single ice stupa is providing water for our farms.” Motup presently has five acres of land, of which he uses just half an acre to grow organic vegetables and barley.
“Whatever produce I get from my organic farm doesn’t fetch me extra money as of now. But once I get the certificate of an organic farmer, I can make four times more money with my organic products,” Motup says.
In another village, Ganglas, which is just seven miles north of Leh, villagers say that their ice stupa, made for the first time in their village last winter, is providing some water, “but just one glacier is not enough.”
Rigzin Mingyur, the team leader at Wangchuk’s Ice Stupa Project in Leh, says that they certainly have plans to create more stupas in the future in accordance with needs. “Since we have experimented with the creation and utility of the ice stupas, we now want volunteers to create ice stupas in their villages,” Mingyur says.
Last winter, he says, over 20 groups from different villages expressed interest in constructing stupas. “After interviews,” he continues, “12 volunteer groups were given training and allotted all the required infrastructure based on their estimates for making ice stupas in their villages.” The first three to make stupas in their villages were given prizes.
The top prize was won by 10 volunteers from Shara, who made an ice stupa measuring 110 feet tall with an estimated capacity of almost two million gallons. First place fetched them a prize of half a million Indian rupees ($7,312). Villagers in Shara said that volunteers from their village also earned money by selling refreshments at the ice stupa site to the tourists who came to see it after completion.
With the success of the Ice Stupas Project, Wangchuk has cofounded the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, which seeks to cultivate and execute more sustainable solutions for the region. One of HIAL’s more ambitious projects is to use the ice stupas to create a water supply for greening the valleys of the Himalayas with tree plantations that will improve soil health and water retention in the area.
Motup, for one, seems optimistic about the future, a sentiment that can be rare among farmers in the region. “I hope more ice stupas are made in our village next year.”
Latitude traces the lines that connect cultures around the world, from globalization and international efforts to stall the effects of climate change to personal freedom and the refugee crisis. The new issue features contributions from acclaimed screenwriter and actor Brit Marling, award-winning journalist Behrouz Boochani, and visionary photographers including Jamie Hawkesworth, Charlie Engman, Pierre Debusschere, Max Farago, and more.