Building glaciers in the desert

Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk has an alternate solution for the issue of water scarcity in the desert landscapes of the western Himalayas: artificial glaciers.

Since 2015, he and his team have been building ‘ice stupas’, frozen conical mounds that behave very much like artificial glaciers.

Their distinctive shapes are deliberately designed to resemble Tibetan Buddhist stupas but their small surface areas also help in ensuring they only slowly release their contents, helping in the growing season, when farmers across the region face acute water shortages.

He built his first prototype two years ago, using a 2.3-kilometre pipeline to direct glacial streams down the village desert, supplying 1.5 million litres of meltwater to 5,000 saplings planted by locals.

Having recently won one of the 40th anniversary Rolex Awards, Wangchuk will use his winnings to create up to 20 ice stupas, each 30 metres high, and initiate a tree-planting programme on the desert once the water supply system is established.

Wongchuk is also establishing an alternative university in the Ladakh with hopes to engage young people in the Himalayas and beyond in eco-solutions for mountain areas.

First published in May/Jun 2017