Are Man-Made Glaciers the Answer to the Himalayas’ Melting Ice?

How one man’s plan to irrigate the Ladakh desert is drawing inspiration and critics

All photos courtesy of Adam Popescu

LLADAKH, INDIA — In a region with scant water — less than 4 inches of annual rainfall — Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer by trade, has taken it upon himself to irrigate the mountainous desert of Ladakh, a sprawling Himalayan region that borders China and Pakistan. Ladakh translates to “land of high passes,” and with mountains that average about 20,000 feet, it’s no exaggeration. This combination of isolation and hostile environment has made this region imperiled and in many ways a fool’s errand. Wangchuk believes it’s an opportunity for true climate change.

He’s built a dozen man-made glaciers which he says release 2.6 million gallons of runoff to thousands of struggling farmers in the area. His designs collect ice in winter and then slowly melt that ice to hydrate parched summer fields.

Sonam Wangchuk

Wangchuk’s man-made glaciers are 90-foot high domed structures shaped like traditional Tibetan Buddhist mounds. It’s so cold in Ladakh that when glacial stream water is pumped into the air, it solidifies around the wire or tree branch frame to form conical, temple-like glaciers. Known colloquially as ice stupas, Wangchuk uses plastic piping and sleeping bags donated by the army which are wrapped around the pipes to provide insulation at a minimal cost. Situated in mountain valleys where runoff feeds adjacent villages when these glaciers melt, the runoff feeds community crops.

“It’s a leap of faith,” admits Wangchuk, 52, in an office-bedroom at his experimental, environment-friendly school, just outside Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

The idea to build man-made glaciers was born in 2013 when Wangchuk was walking through Ladakh and noticed that a massive chunk of river ice lasted into summer. A year later, with the blessing of the Dalai Lama’s deputy— His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche — and the help of student volunteers, Wangchuk raised $125,000 on Indiegogo and built a prototype. In 2016, he received a $100,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise. The prize money went to help grow the project and his schools, which he says are geared towards students who fall through the cracks.

Most locals here are farmers, and with almost no rain, they’re understandably edgy when it comes to where they get their water from. Around here, that means runoff from glaciers which melt in the summer months. But Wangchuk’s model could be, at least partially, a larger solution to changing environments. Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, though a mere 0.75% of that is freshwater and available for human use since most is locked in permafrost or glacial ice. Most of the water we rely on is subterranean groundwater. If water is a proxy for life there may not be a more apt analogy than in these mountains.

“Anytime someone brings a new idea, it takes time for change to be accepted.”

Stretching 2,000 miles and eight countries, glacial runoff from the Himalayas and adjacent Hindu Kush mountains gives birth to 10 major river systems. Ranging across China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, these glaciers feed the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, and Mekong rivers, supplying nearly half the world with food, energy, clean air, and incomes. Nearly a third of the 250 million people in this trans-border landscape live on less than $1.90 a day. Over 30% don’t have enough to eat, and half face malnutrition.

Even if the carbon cuts called for in the 2015 Paris agreement are met, a third of these glaciers will disappear by the end of the century.

The loss of this “Third Pole,” the biggest frozen store of water outside the Arctic and Antarctic, means no ice on iconic areas like Mount Everest. It also means widespread food shortages and famine which could threaten the nearly 4 billion people living in the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, and China.

In some places in the range, like Ladakh, receding glaciers mean sustained drought and glacial melt that accelerates desertification, causing an increase in erosion and occasional flash floods, a cycle that also limits prey capacity and threatens wildlife like plants, another essential piece of this economy as ecotourism grows. (2.5 million tourists come to Ladakh annually.)

A village in Ladakh and its surrounding areas.

A generation earlier, another Ladakhi engineer had a similar idea: Chewang Norphel, also known as the “Ice Man,” developed a way to divert glacial melt into constructed canals and embankments where those shallow pools froze. In winter, ice accumulated, a process called glacier grafting. It’s still practiced, but the glaciers are high in the mountains and the ice doesn’t last long since it’s not very deep. Wangchuk’s designs are in the villages. And now they’re spreading.

There’s at least one similar stupa in Pakistan and a few in the Alps. In Switzerland, where retreating glaciers have hit the ski economy, Wangchuk’s stupas have been used in the village of Pontresina, though locals there admit they’re more of a tourist attraction than a true fix for the receding Morteratsch Glacier.

Wangchuk’s glaciers fit into his strategy of developing large-scale innovations to combat the changes his fellow Ladakhis deal with on a daily basis. He’s also building a high-altitude university to serve as a test center for climate issues that is located just a few miles from SECMOL, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school where he lives and teaches. The campus features organic farming with composted soil and reclaimed water, apple orchards, solar pumps, bricks formed around plastic water bottles, and 40-foot shipping containers reconfigured as dormitories. In 2017, he won a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture for these very designs, a formula copied by the Indian army at 21 winter bases spread throughout Ladakh.

This work has made Wangchuk quite famous in India, so much so that his stupas were placed on a national postage stamp. But the man himself is quite polarizing. In Ladakh, some communities that are downstream from diverted waterways say they’re losing out. Last year there were other village disputes over water rights. Farmers in Phey, a stone’s throw from Wangchuk’s school, claim they’re being deprived of water they would normally use in winter.

The concept of seeding a now-irrigated desert with trees, dubbed Green Ladakh, is another part of the plan that some locals say doesn’t suit the climate. “I don’t understand the logic for the stupas,” says David Sonam, a co-owner of Snow Leopard Lodge, a small hotel in the Ladakhi village of Ulley. “How much water can it give? There’s no reason for a Green Ladakh. Ladakh doesn’t need trees. Ladakh doesn’t need to be green.”

Wangchuk claims local fears are unfounded, and that his designs freeze water that would otherwise be lost. In late spring, the stupa melt is collected in large tanks and distributed onto fields via drip-irrigation. “Anytime someone brings a new idea, it takes time for change to be accepted,” he explains.

Yet the conflict over the glaciers is becoming increasingly complex. Phey’s village head, Tsering Motup, and a group of other families are lobbying local officials to shut it down. Meanwhile, representatives from a village further downstream, Phyang, argue they are, in fact, benefitting from the runoff. Wangchuk has said the stream in question has about 100 million cubic meters of water flowing annually and that both villages only use a tenth of that during the five-month farming season.

“If we channelize the rest of the wasted water into large lake-sized reservoirs along the hillside on the Phyang desert, then roughly 6 million cubic meters can be stored for later use,” Wangchuk recently wrote in a letter to officials, adding that his project is the only way to restore groundwater.

A government body was formed to investigate, but months later, the stupas remain. They’ve even been turned into a sort of tourist attraction: you can climb one and get a coffee in another — inside an ice cafe.

SoSo is Wangchuk’s project real or pipe dream? “I don’t imagine that the ice stupas will work everywhere, because they need a specific combination of steep terrain, cold air, and streams that still run through the cold part of the year,” says Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the head of the Oceans Melting Greenland Project, which measures the continent’s ice cap. That said, Willis believes the stupas do have local value. “The rough terrain and the reliably cold winters in the Himalayas make this a very elegant solution for these remote villages.”

Martin Truffer, a University of Alaska glaciologist, disagrees. “This is more a publicity stunt than a meaningful way forward,” he says. “If you created an artificial pond of the same volume as the ice stupa, you would also store water and the release of the water would be more controlled than in the case of just letting it melt.”

A few weeks after my time in Ladakh, I met Dr. Mandira Shrestha, a water resource specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development — the intergovernmental body that recently published a landmark report on the Himalayan glacial melt — in Kathmandu. Dr. Shrestha knows Wangchuk and she says even something as seemingly small and gimmicky can “help disaster risk reduction.”

“We live in a multi-hazard environment: drought, floods, landslides, storms, they’re all cascading impacts, one leading to another,” says Dr. Shrestha. Projects like this are an incremental step to preventing those future problems. “We need to be adaptable. And I’m hopeful.”

Wangchuk’s plan may be an incremental step forward at most, but it may also represent the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that’s needed. Without it, we may have already lost.

Debut novel, NIMA, which takes on Mt. Everest, is now available: https://www.amazon.com/Nima-Adam-Popescu/dp/1944700854

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