24 July 2012

The glacier maker

A stream in Nimaling valley, Ladakh.
They call him Ice Man. No, he is not a character of the latest Batman movie, but an Indian engineer whose idea, born in 1987, helps villages in the north of India to guarantee their water supply!

Water for the only harvest of the year

Ladakh is a region of the world located in the Jammu & Kashmir northern state of India. It comprises mainly high altitude desert mountains above 3 000 meters. It is a popular trekking destination for its stunning landscapes.

Almost 80% of the farmers in the region depend on snow and glacier melt water for irrigation and domestic use. The summer-season cultivation is short. It is during April and May that the farmers sow for the only harvest of the year. If it is not sown at this time, the crop cannot be fully maturated, resulting in low yielding crops.

Since winters are getting shorter and warmer, and glaciers are retreating rapidly, less and less water is available, and sometimes at the wrong period. The crops are not as good as in the past, less food is available. Already the entire population of some villages had to leave and migrate because of this change.

A successful try

An artificial glacier
(Picture : LNP)
Chewang Norphel was born in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. During 35 years he worked in the region as a civil engineer. In 1987, Chewang decided to help four villages in Shara valley. He says : “At that time the water supply was already a serious problem for four villages since there was only one stream in the valley.”

“I came out with an idea. What if water could be stored during winter so that it is available later during spring? Which practically means building… an artificial glacier! And it worked! We managed to force the creation of a glacier which provided few months after the water that the villages needed.”

A stone structure is built to 
retain the diverted water 
which will accumulate and 
create the artificial glacier.
(Picture : LNP)
Chewang explains how an artificial glacier works : “At the start of winter, water is diverted from a main stream to let it flow onto a sloping hill. Distribution channels are constructed with stones on the hill. Ice retaining walls are built at regular intervals to impede the flow of water and to make shallow pools. This is how a huge quantity of water is kept stored!”

The hill must be located on a shaded area, facing north side, where winter sun is blocked by a ridge or a mountain slope. This will ensure that the accumulated water stock will not melt during the winter. The process of ice formation takes place during the 3 to 4 winter months and as a result a big reserve of ice accumulates on the mountain slope.

(Picture : LNP)
Ice Man concludes : “The artificial glacier starts melting in spring, right in time for first irrigation. After the success of Shara glacier, we have built about 10 more glaciers.”

The brilliant idea of Chewang has changed the life of many. Adaptation to climate change is already a vital necessity in several areas in the world, let’s react all together before adaptation concerns all of us!

Chewang and Carolina at the office of Leh Nutrition Project
where Chewang currently works as Chief Project Officer.

During these last years, Chewang has received the following awards and honours:

Best Rural Engineer Award from the President of India ;
Rural Engineer Award by Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi ;
Asian Innovative Award of Hong Kong, Far Eastern Economic Review Magazine ;
CNN-IBN ‘Real Hero’ Award, 2008 (a video, here).


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