Engineer Builds Artificial Glaciers to Provide Fresh Water for the High Desert of Himalaya

Engineer Builds Artificial Glaciers to Provide Fresh Water for the High Desert of Himalaya

To innovate the way Himalayan farmers live and grow their crops, an engineer, Sonam Wangchuk, came up with an ingenious solution to build artificial glaciers. They are called ice stupa glaciers, which are built during the cold winter season and naturally melt in spring to water the barren desert fields. Wangchuk won a prestigious award for his innovative engineering work and is using the prize money to fund the Ice Stupa Project.

The Ladakh mountain

The Ladakh is a North Indian state and a trans-Himalayan mountain desert. Some of the villages within this region are located at high altitudes between 2,700 m to 4,000 m. Therefore, the community in this area endures winter temperatures that reach right down to -30° C with average rain/snowfall of only 100 mm per year. And one of the population's major survival tactic is to grow crops such as barley, wheat, vegetables as well as trees like apricots, apples, willow, and poplar. To be able to nurture their crops, the community requires an abundant supply of water. One of the biggest challenges the people face is to channel water from streams via intricately built canals all the way to the deserts.

What is the problem?

During the spring months of April and May, farmers are in dire need of water to nurture their newly planted crops. However, as summer approaches by mid-June, water supply becomes too abundant and results into flash floods. This is due to the rapid melting of the snow and glaciers in the mountains. As the farming season comes to an end around mid-September, small streams of water continuously flow to the desert throughout winter. But this supply of water is not effectively harnessed and is put to waste by going into the Indus river.

Ladakh desert where Ice Stupa glaciers are being built

Ladakh Mountains [Image Source: Ice Stupa Project]

This annual cycle of drought and water surplus in the Ladakh mountain region is becoming severe as the years come and go. Especially as global warming and local pollution gradually wipes out the Himalayan glaciers.

Solving the problem

This is where the Ice Stupa project comes in. Ice stupa is essentially a man-made glacier that stores the water surplus during the winter season. So, instead of flowing down to the rivers without being used, these artificial glaciers can reserve the excess water.

When the farming season arrives during spring, the glaciers will melt just in time when the fields require an abundant water supply. This concept of building a glacier is nothing new to the Ladakh people. Their ancestors used to build artificial glaciers using a similar process called 'grafting glaciers' in some of the high peaks of the mountains.

Traditional artificial glaciers are typically based on horizontal ice formations, which are required to be located at very high altitudes above 4,000 m. Moreover, these flat glaciers need constant maintenance and have to be facing north to shade the ice from the spring sun. This results into a difficult glacier to maintain and keep. That's why Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk came up with a new and innovative solution to building the ice stupa glaciers.

How are ice stupa glaciers built?

The original flat glaciers were created by Chewang Norphel who collaborated with Wangchuk to work on the new ice stupa structure. Their new approach is to freeze the stream water in a vertical orientation forming huge ice towers or cones. With heights between 30 m to 50 m, these ice towers resemble the local sacred mud structures known as Stupa or Chorten.

Ice stupa structure by Sonam Mangchuk

[Image Source: Sonam Wangchuk via YouTube]

Initially, the idea is to mount water pipes on a mobile tower 60 meters high and let the stream water drop from that height to the ground. Because of the cold Ladakhi winter temperatures of -30°C to -50°C, the water would freeze by the time it reaches the ground. Gradually forming an ice stupa with 30 m to 50 m height.

In reality, the mobile tower structure is not needed as the piped water can be frozen at ground level. Then it's just the matter of mounting the frozen water meter by meter as the thickness of the ice grows. Until it reaches the desired height close to the source.

As the cones rise vertically upwards towards the sun, the ice structure absorbs fewer of the sun's ray per volume of stored water. It should take longer to melt the ice stupa compared to the horizontally built artificial glaciers.

Wangchuk won the Rolex Award for Enterprise and intends to use the funds to create around 20 ice stupas. Once the water supply system is in place, it will result in a substantial tree-planting program around the desert near their school.

To find out more about this innovative project, visit the Ice Stupa page on the link below. If you're interested in helping and supporting this project out, you can donate via this page.

Sources: Ice Stupa Project, Rolex Awards

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