By Eva Van Den Berg
Sonam Wangchuk, aged 53, is a native of the district of Leh, in Ladakh. This vast, remote region almost as large as Portugal is located in northern India, and is made up of a plateau that is at an altitude of over 3,000 metres in many areas. To the north it is bounded by the Kunlun mountains, one of the longest mountain chains in Asia, and to the south by the impressive heights of the Himalayas. Known as “Little Tibet”, Ladakh is an enormous cold desert inhabited by over 274,000 people scattered among some 200 different localities. The people in this region, especially on the highest slopes, have always lived from agriculture and livestock (and in recent times, also from tourism), activities that have continued thanks to the vital supplies of water derived from the melting of the glaciers in the spring. These gigantic frozen masses contain 69% of the planet’s supplies of fresh water and, as Wangchuk says, in this region hold the secret to all life.
In Ladakh, where emissions of greenhouse gases are insignificant, the average temperature has increased by 2ºC since 1980, which on a global scale is considered as the maximum increase allowable to ensure that life can continue in acceptable conditions. As a result of this extra couple of degrees, the glaciers are melting and retreating, and rainfall has become erratic, with alternating droughts, coinciding with the sowing season, and destructive periods of extreme rainfall. In 2010 the latter were particularly serious, causing up to 255 victims.
This is not in fact a recent phenomenon: two decades ago, retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel, another resident of Leh, had already identified the threat to local people caused by this upheaval in climatic conditions. In an attempt to alleviate the shortage of water, he constructed embankments in the shaded zones of the mountains at various altitudes, so that they would act as small dams to store the water from mountain streams during the winter. The idea was to create types of flat artificial glaciers to store the water as ice until the spring, when it would melt and be channelled down to the fields where crops were grown. However not only did it require enormous effort to work at this altitude far from the village, the water often evaporated before it could be used. The “Iceman”, as Norphel is known to his fellow citizens, decided to consult his colleague, Sonam Wangchuk. This turned out to be a very good idea, since Wangchuk, who likes to think of himself as a “problem solver”, took the subject as a personal challenge. How could this winter water be collected down in the valley itself — i.e., at much lower altitudes — while still keeping it frozen until it was needed for the fields? After much thought, he suddenly had the idea of building an artificial glacier inspired by the form of a 'stupa', the Buddhist shrines that are such a common feature in South-East Asia. Thanks to their conical shape, the surface exposed to the sun would be minimal. Would this help it to last for several months before melting?
Wangchuk started to work on the first prototype ice stupa in 2014, in collaboration with a group of young people from the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), an organisation that he himself had founded in 1988 and which now runs a progressive school that seeks to offer new opportunities to the region’s youth. “It is only by training young people and getting them to identify with the environmental problems of the mountains that we will succeed in placing the future of the Earth in good hands,” declares the mechanical engineer. Fortunately his prototype worked. “No electricity or other form of energy is required. The only force required for it to work is gravity,” he adds. His plan involves taking the water that flows through the streams in January and February that nobody uses, and passing it through a pipe to the place where the stupa will be placed. At this point, the pipe turns into a vertical section. When this pipe is opened, due to the physical principle of communicating vessels, the water shoots upwards and tries to reach the height of the point at which it was collected. Releasing the water at night, when temperatures drop to –20ºC or even –30ºC, the myriad of droplets that emerge under pressure freeze almost instantly, falling in a cascade and forming a pyramid of ice around a simple structure of tree-trunks and branches.
In 2015, and after collecting 125,000 dollars for the purpose, with the help of the entire village Wangchuk succeeded in setting up the first ice stupa in the village of Fiang. It was nearly 20 metres high and stayed frozen until April, when it duly started to melt over a period of two months (until the melting of the glaciers in June took over the task of supplying fresh water). It provided up to a million and a half litres of water to a plantation of 5,000 poplar saplings which grew to create an oasis of hope. After this success, and thanks to the support of the Rolex Award for Enterprise, in 2016 Wangchuk took on his next challenge: to construct another 20 ice stupas in Ladakh, each 30 metres high, and to re-green this desert bordering the foothills of the Himalayas, sometimes also referred to as the planet's “third pole” due to the size of the ice reserves that they contain.
However, it is not only in this region that people will benefit from the ice stupas. Wangchuk’s invention has of course attracted interest in many locations around the world, including in Europe, where last year he constructed his first ice stupa in the Swiss Alps. He has done the same in other areas of his own country: in 2020 he was due to work on the re-freezing of a glacial lake in Sikkim to prevent sudden flooding.
The beauty of the concept lies in its simplicity, Wangchuk often says. A simplicity that — as another great inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, is supposed to have said — is the ultimate form of sophistication.
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