Artificial glacier could help Ladakh villagers adapt to climate change

Villagers of the high desert of Ladakh in
India’s Jammu and Kashmir state used to
harvest bountiful crops of barley, wheat,
fruits, and vegetables in summer.
But for years the streams have run dry in
spring, just when farmers needed water to
sow seeds. They had water when it wasn’t
needed during the rest of the year, such as
in winter, when Ladakhis let water gush
from taps to prevent pipes from freezing
and bursting.
Villagers blame climate change for causing
glaciers to shrink by melting them faster
than before.
To resolve the water-shortage problem,
Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer,
and his team of volunteers are building a
gigantic vertical block of ice in Phyang,
nine miles from Leh, the capital of Ladakh.
When spring comes and the artificial
glacier melts, farmers will have flowing
water.
The ingenious method stores water
without the need for concrete water
storage tanks or dams. While it won’t stop
glaciers from shrinking, it could help
people adapt to a warming world.
Last winter, Wangchuk built a six-metre-
high prototype on a fully exposed
riverbank to test his novel idea. It stored
150,000 litres of water at 3,170 metres, the
lowest altitude in Leh valley. This, he said,
proved ice pyramids can be built
anywhere in the region.
The frozen cone resembles Buddhist mud
stupas, and Wangchuk was quick to come
up with a name for them: ice stupa. When
the prototype lasted until mid-May, he was
encouraged to attempt a 30-metre-high
pyramid of ice this winter.
But the cost of piping water from the
Phyang stream, 1.5 miles away, was an
exorbitant $100,000 (£64,700).
Unperturbed, he raised the money on the
crowd-funding platform Indiegogo and
work began on 21 January.
The site was waterproofed with clay, so
when the ice stupa melted, water would
not seep into the desert sand. Sprinklers
sprayed water from above, and the frigid
wind froze the droplets as they hit the
ground. A cone of ice built up slowly but
steadily.
With only two more weeks of winter left,
time is running short. The stupa will likely
be no more than 15 metres high when
completed, half the size of the planned 30
metres.
“This year was the first time, so there were
complications and delays,” Wangchuk told
the Guardian. “We wanted to achieve two
things – to show how to make a stupa and
how to green a patch of desert. We want to
create orchards and greenhouses for
vegetables.
“It’s difficult to say how many people will
eventually benefit. Phyang village has only
2,000 people. But there’ll be enough water
for many more. This is an economic as well
as ecologic[al] activity.”
In the coming years, Wangchuk hopes to
build 80 to 90 stupas, each more than 30
metres tall, in Phyang village. They’ll store
1bn litres of water, enough to irrigate 600
hectares (1,500 acres) of desert, he says.
To make so many ice pyramids, the only
additional investment is the pipeline.
Wangchuk said: “We need more pipes so
we can extend it farther and farther. It will
take another $100,000 [£64,800] to make the
other stupas.”
Once the pipes are laid, frozen ice
pyramids can be built year after year
without pumping in more money. “The
capital cost of infrastructure is Rs. 0.025
per litre. After that the water is free. The
underground pipes will last a hundred
years.”
Wangchuk thinks the only way of dealing
with the effects of climate change in
Ladakh is to build “stupas clubbed with
small reservoirs that hold rainwater where
it can’t freeze. People say there’s less and
less snow, but there’s more precipitation
in the form of rain. We need some way of
holding water in the high mountains and
then form ice stupas. The scope will
become smaller if streams have less and
less water.”
But for now, the desert around the 3,500-
metre-high Phyang will turn green in
summer, as water flows for the first time in
many years.