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Glacier man of Ladakh shows the way

Amid ecological changes in Ladakh, Chewang Norphel's pioneering artificial glaciers prompt others to take up the cause

Chewang Norphel showing the structure and mechanism of making an artificial glacier near a village in Leh. Photo: Javeed Shah
Chewang Norphel showing the structure and mechanism of making an artificial glacier near a village in Leh. Photo: Javeed Shah

The road to Nang village, about 30km from Leh, betrays all the Ladakhi characteristics described in tourist brochures: enchanting, mesmerizing and magical. At an altitude of nearly 12,000ft, the stark, bare and ethereal wind-sculpted rockscape is also equally breathless, factually and figuratively.

Led by two officials of Leh Nutrition Project, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), we hiked up a moderate incline from the village, breathing heavily in the thin air. We walked past a few cemented homes, through farmland, over embankments and along a gushing and frothy mountain stream, which distracts from the fact that Ladakh faces an acute water scarcity, especially during winter and early spring.

After about an hour of walking, we crossed the stream and headed further up through boulder-strewn terrain. Eventually, we reached an area that had been cleared, lightly flattened and bunds created at regular intervals on the slope.

In July, when we travelled to the site, this area looked parched and featureless. Now, as you read this in November, the slope has started taking the initial shape of a man-made glacier, as it freezes and solidifies in Ladakh’s unforgiving winter. By early April, the fully formed glacier will start thawing, it’s melting water flowing into and irrigating agricultural land in its neighbourhood. As it happens, a mustering of forces between the natural and the artificial, 81-year-old Leh resident Chewang Norphel can once again sigh in relief at a job well done.

His age, says Norphel on the phone from Jammu, rarely allows him to make himself available at the site of artificial glaciers these days. Having created and inspired 15 of them near various water-starved villages of Ladakh, NGOs have taken up the initiative to create and maintain artificial glaciers, he adds.

“Norphel has shown us the way. He has provided us the know-how and technical expertise and we have followed his instructions. He is also available for advice whenever we need," said Nasir Ahmed of the Leh Nutrition Project, one of the three implementing NGOs, as we negotiated boulders on our way to the Nang glacier in July.

Norphel teaching students at the Leh Nutrition Project office about artificial glaciers. Photo: Javeed Shah

A big difference

What lends charm to the process of creating an artificial glacier is the simplicity of the idea. Around November, the water of nearby streams is diverted to the shaded area of a hill through appropriately designed distribution channels. Stone embankments are built at regular intervals, which impede the water’s flow, thereby facilitating its freezing. Through winter, when temperatures plunge to minus 30 degrees Celsius, ice is formed, giving the frozen body of water the look of a glacier.

Often, multiple glaciers are created for one village at different altitudes. The glacier located closest to the village is at the lowest altitude and melts first, providing irrigation water during the sowing period in April-May. As the temperature rises, the next glacier at a higher altitude starts melting. The process of melting at different times continues to assure irrigation water to the agricultural fields below. “We would earlier be totally dependent on nature for irrigation. The glacier has made a big difference. We feel more confident about our food and financial security," said a farmer at Nang.

Norphel with his wife at their house in Leh. Photo: Javeed Shah

The measure of success of Norphel’s idea, which he tried out “in a small way" for the first time in 1987 at Phuktsey village, is in its easy replication. Known as the Ice Man as well as the Glacier Man of Ladakh, Norphel was awarded the Padma Shri in 2015 for his innovative work. Norphel’s brainchild has also inspired other similar efforts. The Ice Stupa Project undertaken in 2013 by another Ladakhi engineer, Sonam Wangchuk, at Phyang village, where the frozen water takes the shape of a conical stupa before melting for disbursal during the cultivation season, is one such.

Wangchuk’s project won the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016. Wangchuk has also earned a name on the side for being the acknowledged motivation behind the Rancho character in the Aamir Khan-starrer Hindi film, 3 Idiots.

Norphel is said to be the inspiration behind Wangchuk’s high-profile project. Though Wangchuk wasn’t available for comment despite multiple efforts to reach him, Norphel is cautiously critical of his protégé’s Ice Stupa Project.

“Wangchuk had come to one of my glacier sites and I had explained everything to him. But he chose this design. While I like the fact that alternative ideas are emerging, Wangchuk’s model is very expensive and complicated. Considering the Rs75 lakh cost involved, the output of water isn’t much either. To be effective, the model should be cheaper," contends Norphel. According to a report in the news website The Wire, a full-sized 30m ice stupa could hold 15 million litres of water to irrigate a 50-hectare area.

The cost of creating an artificial glacier holding about 50 million litres of water is about Rs2 lakh. A visit to the Phyang village site of the Ice Stupa Project, arid and desolate in July, confirmed the complex process involved, with a network of large and small pipes dissecting the area. An unnaturally flourishing vegetation cover nearby, informed a local schoolteacher, was the positive outcome of the project.

What lends charm to the process of creating an artificial glacier is the simplicity of the idea, and the measure of its success lies in its easy replication-

Puddle of water

The story of Norphel’s glaciers goes about two decades back; the retired civil engineer with the Ladakh administration noticed that a puddle of water under the shade of poplar trees in the backyard of his Leh home had turned into ice in early winter. This, while the running water in drains was unutilized and going to waste. In the extreme winter of Ladakh, residents are known to keep the taps open to prevent the water from freezing and bursting the water pipes. While Norphel realized that water flowing swiftly down a gradient will not freeze easily, water in shaded areas with its flow slackened by creating bunds and lesser gradient is likely to freeze for future use.

In Ladakh, future use of water meant its use in farmlands during the April-May season. Born in a family of farmers with his father growing peas, barley and potatoes, Norphel considers himself lucky to have seen a Ladakh with fewer environmental hazards. That, he rues, is in the past.

Glaciers that would feed Ladakhi villages with melting water have receded. The amount of snowfall has gone down considerably and whenever he finds himself at the window seat of a plane flying over Ladakh, Norphel has to wean his eyes from the “terrible" sight of bare mountain tops which earlier would be snowcapped. The advent of mass tourism has meant many things: food and dress habits have changed; increase in transportation means more pollution, ecologically beneficial mud houses have made way for cemented ones; locals have moved away from agriculture to tourism, which promises “easy money"; consumerism has eroded the local population’s natural environmental consciousness; and his “small village" Leh has turned into a bustling town.

The artificial glaciers have been Norphel’s riposte to all the change. This year, when the third glacier for Shara village, situated 70km from Leh and at an altitude of over 16,000ft, starts freezing over the winter, the ensuing glacier will also serve as a reminder of the many changes in Ladakh.

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