The 'Ice Stupas' That Could Water the Himalaya

Artificial glaciers are being used to grow crops in the harsh desert.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 14 Mar 2018, 18:30 GMT
To mitigate the impact of climate change on populations in the Himalaya, engineer Sonam Wangchuk is ...
To mitigate the impact of climate change on populations in the Himalaya, engineer Sonam Wangchuk is building ice stupas like this one.
Photograph by Lobzang Dadul, Courtesy of Sonam Wangchuk
This story appeared in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

High in the Himalaya, a desert is turning green.

Climate change in the Indian region of Ladakh has shrunk glaciers and made rainfall and temperatures unpredictable. Water is needed to irrigate the fields of barley, apples, and other crops in spring, but the glacial melt doesn’t arrive until summer. To spare farmers a barren yield, engineer Sonam Wangchuk has invented a way to bring the glaciers to the people.

Sonam Wangchuk.
Photograph by ©Rolex/Stefan Walter

In 2015, with $125,000 (£90,000) raised on a crowdfunding site, Wangchuk built a 20metre tall 'ice stupa'—an artificial glacier made by piping mountain streams into a Ladakhi village. The water spouts geyser-like from a vertical pipe, freezing into a cone of ice shaped like a Buddhist shrine. It’s designed to stay frozen until the spring sun warms the fields.

Sure enough, Wangchuk’s prototype began to melt in April, watering a field of newly planted poplar trees. By June, when the regular glacial melt began to flow, the ice stupa was mostly gone.

Now Wangchuk is laying a pipeline to build 50 more ice stupas. Each will supply 10 million litres of water a year and irrigate 25 acres of land.

Word of his project has reached mountaintops across the world. Last year he built Europe’s first ice stupa, in the Swiss Alps, and this year he’ll work on refreezing a glacial lake in India to halt flash floods.

The inventor—whose past projects include solar-powered buildings and efficient cookstoves—won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016. He is using the winnings to establish a pan-Himalayan research university that will address the region’s environmental concerns.

“The water shortage is a huge problem,” said Tsering Spalzes, a local farmer, in a video for the crowdfunding campaign. “In the future our children will find it impossible to continue farming.”

Wangchuk hopes that if locals adapt now, their descendants won’t become climate refugees. “We in the mountains are minorities, not just ethnically but climate-wise,” he says. “Things that work in New York or New Delhi do not work in the mountains. We have to find our own solutions for our problems.”

National Geographic produced this article as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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