NANG, INDIA — Legend has it that the people who live in the snow-capped Himalayas built glaciers to stop Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan’s advance.
No one knows whether that’s true, but it seems more plausible today, as people who live near some of the Earth’s highest points design and erect glaciers to use as controlled water sources.
This time, the threat isn’t an invading army but a palpable temperature change that has made it nigh-impossible for farmers to predict when glacial melt will fill rivers and, ultimately, the irrigation canals that water their crops.
Ice stupas are the latest version of manmade glaciers, which have been used for centuries at higher elevations. The ancient practice was resurrected and improved by Chewang Norphel, an engineer also known as the “Ice Man.” But his method of tiered reservoirs requires extremely high altitudes and shade.
The ice stupas were designed by Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer from the Ladakh region. That region, at India’s northern tip, is considered one of Earth’s ground-zero areas for climate change.
“I grew up hearing stories from grandparents about how in the past they would make some kind of ice in the high valleys to get water in the summers,” Wangchuk says.
Those stories and Norphel’s efforts led Wangchuk to come up with a design that provides water when and where farmers need it. To create an ice stupa, a pipe is laid that extends into the mountains and collects glacial meltwater. That water travels down to a village, then shoots through the pipe’s upturned end, spraying like a fountain.
As the water falls through the cold air, it freezes. Layer upon layer, an ice stupa forms.
Unlike traditional manmade glaciers, which are horizontal, these vertical ice stupas can be built in the middle of villages, without shade and at lower altitudes. Their shape affects how quickly the sun melts them, so farmers can plant their crops according to when they’ll have water.
The design is based on basic geometry, Wangchuk says. A cylindrical shape exposes little surface area to the sun, so it remains frozen even when outside temperatures creep up.
Wangchuk’s first ice stupa, a prototype, was built in Phyang, a village near Nang.
Wangchuk has a history of finding ways to help people in the Ladakh region. He won accolades for developing teaching methods that prioritize the local language, Ladakhi, and local custom.
In Nang, which sits about 3,600 meters (more than 11,800 feet) above sea level, residents say they started to notice a change in the timing of their water supply about seven years ago.
Photo by Athar Parvaiz
Temperatures in and around the Leh region increased rapidly between 1991 and 2013, according to a 2018 study published by the University of Reading, which prioritizes climate research. The region is largely cold and arid, and a warmer climate is likely to have irreversible impacts on that ecosystem, leading to “devastating consequences,” including water shortage problems, the report notes.
Having seen the change in water supply for himself, Wangchuk shifted his attention toward solving the seasonal water shortage problem. He tested the first ice stupa in 2014, he says, and since then, more than a dozen have been built.
Those ice stupas have provided about 25 million liters of water, Wangchuk says.
The ice stupas have transformed life for some farmers in the area, who talk about having a stable crop now, both to sell and to feed their families.
Tenzing Pitot says her family’s financial situation has improved dramatically since an ice stupa was built. It became difficult to know when to plant vegetables, she says, but now there’s a near-guarantee that water will be there when needed.
“This is a great initiative for us,” Pitot says.
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir
Around the world, Wangchuk and the ice stupas have received acclaim, some going so far as to suggest that they might solve climate-change problems across the region.
That’s not likely, says Irfan Rashid, an assistant professor at the University of Kashmir’s Earth and environmental sciences school. The ice stupas alone “cannot solve water scarcity in the Leh area of Ladakh,” he says, adding that they nevertheless represent innovation that can serve smaller communities.
But this innovation hasn’t been universally lauded. Like many problems related to climate change, this one is about access to water. Residents of other villages in the region say the ice stupas monopolize the water supply.
“By the onset of winter we always stored water for next spring, but we cannot do it now due to the diversion” of water to the ice stupas, says Tsering Namgayal, a farmer who lives in Phey, a village where many have opposed Wangchuk’s work.
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir
Wangchuk says both he and Norphel use age-old techniques. Norphel’s artificial glaciers are formed using canals to divert glacial melt into shady areas. Traditionally, the ground in those areas is insulated using brush or charcoal. In some areas, people obstruct the canals with water-filled gourds, stones or embankments, which create shallow pools where water can freeze. During winter, ice accumulates in those canals as well as in naturally occurring glacial areas, ultimately supplementing the water supply.
That process is called glacier grafting. Wangchuk says it’s still practiced traditionally in some areas.
Norphel, the “Ice Man,” used that technique to freeze water in high valleys and create streams that would provide water to villages.
That model works from a technical standpoint, Wangchuk says, but those artificial glaciers sit near the mountains, too far from the villages.
Wangchuk’s ice stupas are located directly in villages and thaw a little sooner than Norphel’s, providing ample water in the spring, when farmers need it most.
“It’s a short period but a very critical period, because if the plants will not get water at this time, they will die,” Wangchuk says.
In fact, he says, in mid-to-late summer, when the glaciers melt naturally, there’s often excess water, because rain tends to come during that time. Much of that water flows straight through the villages and into the Indus River, “without being useful to local people,” Wangchuk says.
The ice stupas “help us with water at the right time,” says Phunsuk Dolma. Dolma sells vegetables in Leh, a nearby town that shares its name with the local district.
“We don’t have to wait for the natural glaciers to melt,” Dolma says. “The natural glaciers help us after the artificial glaciers melt.”
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated some interviews from Urdu.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the exact location of a prototype ice stupa.