"Artificial Glaciers" Aid Farmers in Himalayas

Pallava Bagla from Leh in Ladakh, India
for National Geographic News

September 4, 2001
Life is never easy for the hard-working Buddhist people of northern
India's Ladakh region, which lies high in the inner Himalayas between
China and Pakistan. The thin air of the high altitude takes its toll,
and the landscape—known geographically as a cold desert—is
barren and rocky. The biggest problem for villagers, however, is a
perpetual shortage of water.

Less than seven centimeters of rain falls annually in Ladakh. Water is at a premium all year round, but the shortage is especially felt in March or April, when farmers must sow their crops.

Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer, wanted to find a way to help the peasants of Ladakh, where he grew up. His solution was the first known technique of its kind: creating "artificial glaciers" to capture and channel precious snowmelt that otherwise would be wasted.

The technology, basically a network of pipes, is simple and relatively cheap to build. So far Norphel has helped Ladakhi peasants construct five artificial glaciers to increase water supplies in their villages, especially for crop irrigation. Several more are being planned.

Although the experiment in Ladakh is still small and site specific, word about its success is spreading. Some observers think the technique may one day bring relief to many other water-starved villages around the world that face similar conditions.

"I have not visited the site, but if it is successful, it is a remarkable achievement," said V. C. Thakur, a geologist and former director of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, India. "I have never heard of an example like this from anywhere else in the world," he added.

In recognition of his achievement, the Far Eastern Economic Review honored Norphel with an Asian Innovation Award in 1999.

Simple Technology

At altitudes of more than 14,000 feet, the severe climate and inhospitable terrain means Ladakh's peasants are able to plant and harvest only a single crop each year—wheat, barley, or peas.

It seldom rains in the area, so farmers are heavily dependent on glacier melt to supply water for irrigation. Yet the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of natural glacier meltwater begins to flow to the region.

During the many years he worked for the Jammu and Kashmir Rural Development Department, Norphel saw first-hand how much the people of his region suffered when irrigation water was unavailable when critically needed. He wanted to help alleviate the ongoing water shortage, but his bureaucratic job did not allow him much scope for experimentation.

What sparked the technique that has now been proven successful was a simple observation in his hometown of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He noticed that in winter, the water taps were usually kept fully open so the water would run continuously and not freeze. The water flowed into drains surrounding the tap and froze, essentially wasted.

"While there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, I saw a lot of water just running off and getting wasted in winter," said Norphel. "And it is then that it occurred to me, why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the villages so that local farmers get a real head start in the supply of water when they most need it."

An opportunity to experiment came soon after his retirement from government service. While working for the Leh Nutrition Project, a local non-governmental organization, he decided to try implementing his dream of making artificial glaciers as a means of supplying irrigation water.

"I thought if we could control the streams and freeze the water in artificial glaciers, it could provide farmers with water when they need it most," Norphel said.

Using common sense and with no advanced knowledge of physics, he constructed the first artificial glacier from stone embankments and a few hundred meters of iron pipes.

Norphel's technique is remarkably simple. First, water from an existing stream is diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water is made to flow out onto a sloping hill face. At regular intervals along the mountain slope, small stone embankments are situated to impede the flow of water, thus forming shallow pools.

All this is done before the onset of winter. During the winter, as temperatures fall steadily, the water collected in the small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier.

On-time Irrigation

Farmers in the village of Changla, about a day's travel from Leh, see the diminutive Norphel as something of a messiah who offered them relief from the acute water shortage they used to face immediately after the harsh winters had ended.

The cropping window, or period in which cultivation can be done, lasts seven months before severe winter arrives in October. Any delay in sowing crops can wipe out a harvest because the crop may not mature in time to beat the cold weather.

Today, the residents of Changla can sow their crops on schedule thanks to the artificial glacier that Norphel constructed on the mountain slopes above their village.

Phunsok, a farmer from Changla, said Norphel's handiwork has been a big boon for the area. "The true merit of the technology," he said, "lies in the low cost and the minimal maintenance that is required for the upkeep of these artificial glaciers."

Sonam Dawa, executive director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group in Leh, is also enthusiastic about Norphel's achievement. "Artificial glaciers are the cheapest option to the irrigation water needs of this inhospitable cold desert."

The novel technique, he added, "offers an elegant solution for the most critical first watering of crops."

The largest artificial glacier Norphel has built so far is near the village of Phuktsey. About 1,000 feet (300 meters) in length and 150 feet (45 meters) wide, it has an average depth of 4 feet (one meter) and can supply irrigation water to the entire village of about 700 people. Norphel says it was built at a cost of about U.S. $2,000.

Growing Interest

The use of artificial glaciers as a solution for unreliable water supply is very site specific, so how widely the technology could be adopted elsewhere depends on local conditions. But interest is growing.

In areas of northern Pakistan, especially the Gilgit region, a major project sponsored by an international non-governmental organization called the Aga Khan Rural Support Program has begun building artificial glaciers in an attempt to overcome local drought-like conditions.

According to the Sustainable Development Networking Program (SDNP) in Islamabad, part of the goal is to make the highest areas of the region green and to increase the quantity of water in the Indus River.

The first artificial glacier was constructed on a trial basis in Haramosh. SDNP says the local community is currently obtaining sufficient quantities of water from it for agricultural and household purposes.

The project in Pakistan is now being expanded to seven more sites in the region.

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