Sonam Wangchuk is helping farmers in the arid Himalayan highlands of Ladakh to overcome water shortages by tapping meltwaters to build artificial glaciers.
In spring, farmers who live at 3,500 m in the trans-Himalayan mountains of Ladakh face acute water shortages. Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk’s ingenious solution is to freeze glacial meltwater into towering conical mounds resembling Tibetan religious stupas. These ice stupas behave like mini-glaciers, slowly releasing irrigation water for the growing season.
The Rolex Award funds will support the project and promote ice stupas as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique.
Wangchuk’s design builds on the experimental work of fellow Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel, who created flat artificial glaciers. Wangchuk realized, however, that a workable structure must have a minimal surface area to provide protection from the sun, especially at lower altitudes. Thanks to this design, ice stupas melt at a slower rate than flat ice. The 2015 prototype, the result of a crowdfunding campaign that paid for a 2.3 km pipeline to direct glacial streams down to the village desert, lasted until early July, supplying 1.5 million litres of meltwater to 5,000 saplings planted by locals.
With his Rolex Award funds he intends to create up to 20 ice stupas, each 30 metres high, and initiate a substantial tree-planting programme on the desert near their school once the new water supply system is established.
Wangchuk believes that education and care for the environment go hand in hand. In addition to his work with young people at SECMOL, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, through its Alternative School he has started work on establishing an alternative university in the same area. His objective is to engage young people from the Himalayas and beyond in eco-solutions for mountain areas.
20 ice stupas
Each supplying 10 million litres of water that Wangchuk plans to create