The engineer helping Himalayan farmers by creating artificial glaciers
With the towering Trans-Himalayan Mountains in the background, Ladakh is almost a desert at 3,500 metres above sea level. This part of Indian Kashmir, often referred to as ‘little Tibet’ because of its proximity to the Himalayas and its large Buddhist population, is predominantly agricultural despite its arid terrain. Traditionally, meltwater was used by local people to irrigate their crops, but climate change has meant that the nearest glaciers are disappearing. With no alternative water supply and no rivers nearby, this scarcity is threatening the livelihoods of the local people.
The Rolex Award funds will support the project and promote ice stupas as a technique for climate change adaptation and desert greening.
Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer born in this region, wanted to put his knowledge at the service of this community and devise a way to create water reservoirs to supply the farmers during the driest periods. He found the solution by looking around him at the frozen waters of winter. If he could keep it there for longer by delaying its thaw, the fields could have a more constant source of irrigation. All that was needed was to find a way to preserve the ice.
Wangchuk was inspired by the work of his colleague Chewang Norphel, who had created artificial flat glaciers to try to solve the same problem in Ladakh, but he wanted to improve on that idea, and realised that if the ice surface was smaller, the cold would be preserved for longer. So, he devised conical mounds very similar to Buddhist stupas that preserve the ice for longer, generating meltwater until May and June.
After creating a prototype in 2015, thanks to a fundraising campaign that allowed him to build a 2.3km pipe to bring running water from the glaciers to the village, he was able to see how his creation provided 1.5 million litres of meltwater for cultivation. The pipe led to a vertical structure that expelled the water in the form of a drizzle, which during the winter freezes in a way that creates a pyramidal ice structure, creating an imposing ice stupa.
Wangchuk’s creation became one of the laureate projects of the 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which promotes and encourages ideas that help conserve our environment and improve the living conditions of people around the world. “The Rolex Award funds will support the project and promote ice stupas as a technique for climate change adaptation and desert greening,” explains Wangchuk. His plans are to create 20 ice stupas about 30 metres high and to begin a tree-planting programme in the desert, once the new water supply system is in place, which will allow the area to gradually become more vegetated.
In parallel, Wangchuk wants to raise awareness and educate about the importance of environmental conservation. He is therefore collaborating with SECMOL, the Student Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, and has set up a school in the region to involve young people in and around the Himalayas in ecological solutions for mountainous areas such as the Himalayas.
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