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Overcoming Water Shortages In The Himalayan Deserts

In the shadow of the world’s highest mountain range there is a drought as rain does not make it past the peaks. This is why engineer Sonam Wangchuk (54) is constructing artificial ice mounds in the bare highlands, thus providing water for the fields in spring. He was consequently awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise.
Published in January 2021Time to read: 3min 43s

From Pakistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, the highest mountains in the world stretch for 3,000 kilometres – the Himalayas. Like an enormous wall, the “Roof of the World” forms a natural barrier between the Indian subcontinent and East Asia.

The southern flanks of the Himalayas receive a lot of rain – the winds of the summer monsoons bring a lot of warm, humid air into the region, which ascends into the hills, cools in the process, and allows the water taken from the Indian Ocean to fall down in the form of rain. This is why there are lush forests and rich crops on the southern slopes. The river also feeds gigantic rivers, such as the Ganges, which conduct the valuable water out of the mountains to the lower plains of India and Bangladesh.

Cold deserts high up in the mountains

On the other hand, the northern side of the Himalayas is dry. This is because these grandiose mountains block the rain clouds. The air from the south arrives cold and dry in the highlands of Tibet. Expansive, cold alpine deserts cover the land.

In Ladakh, too, water is an expensive commodity. The dry region in northern India lies at a height of 3,500 metres above sea level, between the Himalayas and the Kunlun Mountains, at the edge of the Tibetan highlands. Here there is only a little rain, which comes down as snow all the way to the 7,700-metre summit, and feeds the icy glaciers in the valleys.

“Agriculture and a sustainable livelihood depend on the melting glacier water and were never an easy matter,” Ladakh engineer Sonam Wangchuk says. “And climate change has further aggravated the situation. Glaciers near villages are continuing to recede. The glacier massifs are becoming ever smaller. They are shrinking. The water supply is becoming unpredictable. Our lifeline is disappearing.”

In order to combat the lack of water in the highland desert, Sonam Wangchuk is constructing ice stupas in the villages. These conical ice mounds, named after stupas – the Buddhist shrines of Tibet – behave like mini-glaciers, melting in spring and providing water for the farmers’ plants. Wangchuk received the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his achievements.

The glacier massifs are becoming ever smaller. They are shrinking. The water supply is becoming unpredictable. Our lifeline is disappearing.Sonam Wangchuk, Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise

The award for extraordinary people

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise are part of the “Perpetual Planet” campaign. The Swiss luxury watch manufacturer has, for more than four decades, supported ongoing or visionary new projects which serve the good of humanity and/or the planet.

The prize was launched in 1976, on the 50-year anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch. Just like the Rolex Oyster, the prize, as well as the laureates, represent the values that Rolex has stood for since its establishment by Hans Wilsdorf in 1905: quality, ingenuity, determination, and especially entrepreneurship.

Since the prizes were first awarded, 150 men and woman have received awards. Laureates receive support for continuing their projects, as well as access to the Rolex network.

Few people living in a vast country

Ladakh is thinly populated. The region is almost 60,000 square kilometres in extent, but is only occupied by 274,000 people. As a comparison: Bavaria is 70,000 square kilometres in extent and has around 13 million inhabitants. The fact that several cultures clash in the Himalayas can also be seen in the population structure of Ladakh.

Around 46 percent of Ladakhis are Shiite Muslims, 42 percent are Buddhists, and 12 percent are Hindus. Tradition dominates the Buddhist culture of neighbouring Tibet, which is why Ladakh is often referred to as “Little Tibet”. In the breathtaking highlands, one thus often comes across picturesque monasteries and so-called stupas – conical holy shrines, used by devout Buddhists in ritualistic processions, which always move clockwise around them.

The environment and education are the focus of his life

Sonam Wangchuk was born in Ladakh and grew up there. He studied mechanical engineering at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar, India, and later completed a two-year course in earthern architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Grenoble. During his career he has applied his knowledge to the improvement of the living standards of the people in his homeland, dealing mainly with the topic of the environment and environmental protection.

In 1988, along with other students, he founded SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), which contributed to the reform of the local education system. In the 1990s, Sonam Wangchuk was essential to the planning and building of the SECMOL Campus in the vicinity of the Ladakhi village of Phey. An alternative school, set up according to ecological principles, and using renewable energy. Here students, teachers and volunteers live and learn. The campus is essentially managed and maintained by the students themselves.

One problem that Sonam Wangchuk regularly struggles with is the increasingly difficult water supply in the region. As a result of climate change, the glaciers are not only constantly shrinking, but also give off the water urgently needed for agriculture a lot later. Therefore it only reaches the villagers in the summer, but is needed for the watering of crops in the spring.

The idea lay under a bridge

While walking through Phey village one day a few years ago, Sonam Wangchuk had a brilliant idea. Even though it was already May, he still found ice from the previous winter under a bridge. It was immediately clear to him: If it is possible to protect the ice from the sun, frozen water can be stored and used far into the spring, even in the relatively warm villages at the foot of the mountain.

Next the engineer thought about reflective foils to keep the sun at bay, but in the end decided on a far more practical way. The ice melts more slowly the lower the size of its surface is in comparison with its volume, i.e. direct contact with the air and sun. Mathematically, the smallest surface to volume ratio is found in a sphere. The more compact the form in which the ice is stored, the longer it takes to melt.

Large ice mounds store water for months

In 2013, Sonam Wangchuck began to develop prototypes of the ice stupas with SECMOL students: compact ice hills, that remind one of the Buddhist stupa shrines, due to their conical shape. The first of these prototypes was seven metres high and provided water until May 2014 – a clear success.

After this, Drikung Kargyud Chetsang Rinpoche, religious head of the many Ladakh Buddhists Drikung-Kagyü schools, and the monks of the Phyang Wangchuk monastery near Phey, asked him to build more ice stupas. Wangchuk organised a joint crowd funding campaign with the monastery. Thus a 2.3 kilometre long water pipe could be financed.

The principle: in winter, the underground pipe will bring water from the higher mountain streams and lakes that are not yet frozen into villages lower down. At the end of the pipe, the water spouts from a vertical pipe. If it is sufficiently cold, the water immediately freezes and falls to the ground. In the course of a few weeks, a giant cone of ice forms around the pipe.

In 2015, there was a 20-metre high ice stupa in the village, which held around 1.5 million litres of water. By the beginning of July 2015, a total of 5,000 trees that the villagers had planted had been watered. Sonam Wangchuk: “The concept therefore works, and we should not stand still.”

We must be resilient, intelligent and innovative, and adapt to the changes so that the next generation can also grow and thrive in these mountains.Sonam Wanghuk, Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise

The prize money from the Rolex Award for Enterprise helps to finance the project and furthers the ice stupas as a climate adaptation measure and greening technology for the desert. In the mid-term, Wangchuk wants to build 50 giant ice stupas in Ladahk, each of which would yield about ten million litres to irrigate ten hectares of land. A reforestation programme with mini-glaciers is planned, with which the inhospitable cold desert of Ladakh will be able to emerge from the rain shadow of the Himalayas.

To increase acceptance of the new procedure among the local population, and to expand the technique, Sonam Wangchuk is planning to supplement the SECMOL campus with the construction of a university. Here students from the region are to learn the scientific tools of the trade to find solutions to the problems of the mountain dwellers.

“We Ladakhis are standing on the front line in the fight against climate change,” says Sonam Wangchuk. “We must be resilient, intelligent and innovative, and adapt to the changes so that the next generation can also grow and thrive in these mountains.”

This is a production of the Axel Springer Brand Studios commissioned by Rolex.

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