Rolex and National GeographicThe “Ice Stupas” That Could Water the Himalaya

Published in November 2017clockTime to read: 1 min 05 s
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Artificial glaciers are being used to grow crops in the harsh desert.

by Nina Strochlic

High in the Himalayas, a desert is turning green.

Climate change in the Indian region of Ladakh has shrunk glaciers and made rainfall and temperatures unpredictable. Water is needed to irrigate the fields of barley, apples, and other crops in spring, but the glacial melt doesn’t arrive until summer. To spare farmers a barren yield, engineer Sonam Wangchuk has invented a way to bring the glaciers to the people.

In 2015, with $125,000 raised on a crowdfunding site, Wangchuk built a 64-foot-tall “ice stupa”—an artificial glacier made by piping mountain streams into a Ladakhi village. The water spouts geyser-like from a vertical pipe, freezing into a cone of ice shaped like a Buddhist shrine. It’s designed to stay frozen until the spring sun warms the fields.

Sure enough, Wangchuk’s prototype began to melt in April, watering a field of newly planted poplar trees. By June, when the regular glacial melt began to flow, the ice stupa was mostly gone.

  • Sonam Wangchuk

Now Wangchuk is laying a pipeline to build 50 more ice stupas. Each will supply 10 million litres of water a year and irrigate 25 acres of land.

Word of his project has reached mountaintops across the world. Last year he built Europe’s first ice stupa, in the Swiss Alps, and this year he’ll work on refreezing a glacial lake in India to halt flash floods.

The inventor—whose past projects include solar-powered buildings and efficient cookstoves—won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016. He is using the winnings to establish a pan-Himalayan research university that will address the region’s environmental concerns.

National Geographic produced this content as part of our partnership with Rolex, formed to promote exploration and conservation. The organizations have joined forces in efforts that support explorers who are nurturing big ideas and finding real solutions to protect Earth’s wonders.

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