In the extreme north of India, the harsh mountain area of the Trans-Himalaya is experiencing acute water shortages; the desert’s glaciers are receding owing to climate change. Every spring, mountain people compete for water in the ‘Land of High Passes’, disrupting the otherwise tranquil remote villages.
Indian mechanical engineer-turned-educator Sonam Wangchuk has devised a simple – and beautiful – lifeline. He is freezing glacial meltwater into towering artificial glaciers that resemble Tibetan religious ‘stupas’ (dome-shaped Buddha shrines), diverting water from the nearby streams to grow fruit trees, vegetables and crops.
The concept of grafting manmade glaciers is not new to Ladakh. However, Sonam’s Ice Stupa Project is based on a vertical ice formation, spraying water into the freezing sub-zero air in winter. They are low maintenance, taking longer to melt compared to a horizontal artificial glacier; the geometric shape means they do not melt until spring.
The simple idea doesn’t need pumps or power. It uses gravity.
An underground pipeline runs from a higher point of a glacial stream to the outskirts of the village where water is needed. As water rises up from ground level, it creates ice rods which slowly form a huge igloo-like cone. Each 30-metre artificial glacier can hold 20 million litres of water and Sonam plans to create 20 with the funds from winning the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016. The ice cones could also be rented to tourists, boosting the local economy. He is also now helping to build ice stupas near St Moritz in Switzerland.
Sonam wants to engage young people in eco-solutions for mountain areas, as he believes that education and caring for the environment go hand in hand. His aim is to create a substantial tree-planting programme in the desert and the first alternative mountain university in the world.