Over the last three decades, climate change, with decreasing snowfall and rising temperatures, is causing Himalayan glaciers to recede, putting entire livelihoods under threat. Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer from the arid Himalayan region of Ladakh, may just have the answer: artificial mini-glaciers in the shape of Tibetan temples.
Himalayan glacial waters sustain life for billions of people in the region and beyond. But farmers in the cold high-altitude desert region of Ladakh have never had it easy. Their livelihood depends upon glaciers’ meltwater sustaining crops and grasslands in the spring and summer months: with glaciers now receding, life has become much more precarious. Rising temperatures, and decreasing snowfall, mean that the situation has become very erratic: water no longer flows steadily, but extreme events such as floods and droughts are now the norm, and with them new hardships not just for the people of Ladakh, but for other Himalayan communities and beyond.
According to scientists, glaciers in China, Nepal and India have been receding at an average of 10 to 15 metres per year. Also, it is forecast that up to a quarter of the global mountain glaciers will be gone by 2050.
To help communities adapt to a new water-scarce reality, Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk has come up with an innovative idea: collect unused melting glacial water during the winter months, and freeze it into conical-shaped structures that resemble Stupas – that is Tibetan temples. Scattered around Ladakh villages, these ice-cones melt during the spring, providing a lifeline to local communities.
How Does It Work?
In the winter, a pipe is connected to a glacial river or lake – to collect meltwater which would otherwise go wasted – buried six feet under the ground, and run all the way to a village, or to an area where vegetation is to be grown. Because of gravity, pressure builds up in the pipe, and the water naturally bursts out of it. A minus 20C temperature turns this gushing water into an accumulating ice-mound, which starts melting only in late spring, when farmers needs it the most.
Indeed, the key element of the structure is it conical shape: building on previous flat artificial glaciers – by fellow Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel – Wangchuk’s mini-glaciers’ conical shape means a smaller ice-surface is exposed to the sun, which has therefore a slower melt pace when compared to a flat surface.
A crowdfunding campaign enabled Wangchuk to build his prototype in 2015. This consisted of a 2.3 km pipeline that ran from glacial streams down to the village desert. The mini Stupa-shape glacier it created lasted until early July, and was able to bring some 1.5 million litres of meltwater to 5,000 saplings planted by locals.
Having received the Rolex Award in 2016, Wangchuk plans to use its funds to build another 20 ice Stupas, each 30 metres high, and to help bring water and vegetation to local areas that have historically seen very little of both.
Also on the cards is a tree-planting programme and a university that engages local youth to look into and find sustainable solutions to the environmental issues faced by mountain people from the Himalaya.
You can hear it from the man himself in this video: