Ice stupas solving water crisis in Himalaya

by SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH

An engineer has successfully built artificial glaciers to provide water to farmers in arid Himalayan highlands, solving an age-old problem faced by the people of Ladakh, a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

When winter comes, the cold and dry weather in the desert area makes it tough to continue with agriculture activities. Frozen soil and low air temperature make it almost impossible to grow vegetables.

With an annual rainfall of less than 50mm, agriculture in Ladakh depends on the snow and glaciers melting waters.

The climate change in Ladakh has taken its toll on the highlanders. Among others, it has experienced a hotter summer. There has been a significant drop in snowfalls in the last couple of decades and the glaciers are melting at a higher rate.

Consequently during the spring season, water is limited, affecting the agriculture and food supplies.

Technology has come to the aid of the farmers. An engineer from Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk, has invested an ingenious way to help them. In essence, the plan is to tap melting water to build artificial glaciers.

The idea came to him when he was crossing a bridge in the Indian Himalayas in the month of May. He noticed there was a good amount of ice left under the bridge from the previous winter despite the current summer season.

How does it work? First, they freeze an artificial glacier that accumulates in a stupa form, a dome-shaped Buddha shrine. The objective here is to freeze and hold the water and prevent it from flowing down the streams and into the rivers. The ice tower is meant to be conserved until June. It is then used to water the fields.

The concept of artificial glaciers is not new to the Ladakhis. They have been adopting a process called “grafting glaciers” to overcome the short supply of water during summer and spring time. However, the older approach is based on horizontal ice formation. This requires a certain location to set up the glaciers and is harder to build and maintain.

After talking to several engineers who had the same interest in sustaining water supply to the Himalayan villagers, Wangchuk introduced the new approach to make artificial glaciers. These glaciers can be positioned at any desired location with frequent maintenance and shading requirement.

The new model allows for stream water to be frozen vertically in the form of huge cone-like ice towers of up to 30m to 50m in height. The method is said to require less effort and investment, except for the laying of underground pipeline from a higher point of the stream.

The water would be released from a 60m upstream when the temperature is at -30°C to -50°C. The water will then freeze by the time it reaches the ground and slowly forms a huge cone-like ice tower.

In October 2013, Wangchuk created the first prototype of six metres by freezing 15,000 litres without any contact from the sunlight. The prototype started to melt in April, providing water to some of the highland villages. By June, when the regular glacial melt began to flow, the ice stupa was mostly out of sight.

For this to work, no electricity or machinery is needed to pump water as they leverage on gravity.

In 2016, the idea got noticed, bestowing on Wangchuk the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Funds from the award will support the project and promote ice stupas as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique.