"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.

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