Ladakh, Himalaya: Combating the water crisis

In 2016, Wangchuk won the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise. Photo credit: Stefan Walter/Rolex Awards

According to engineer Sonam Wangchuk, an idea took root in his mind one morning as he made his way across a bridge in the Indian Himalayas.

Hailing from the Ladakh region in the Jammu and Kashmir state in north India, he was already known as problem solver – Bollywood had produced a film loosely based on his life, and it incredibly grossed around a billion rupees (US$15,604,280) within the first four days of its release.

But tackling the water shortages that challenged his beloved mountain home had started to feel like an unmanageable issue until he caught a glimpse of some ice extraordinarily hanging beneath the bridge long after the surrounding ice shards had long melted away. At that moment, he told The Guardian, “I understood that it was not the warmth of the sun that was melting the ice on the ground. It was direct sunlight.”

What had begun as a spark of inspiration was achieved four years ago, when he realised his very first “ice stupa”, a surreal artificial glacier that contrasted with and dominated the surrounding dry landscape. In December 2016, Wangchuk won the Rolex Award for Innovation, a prestigious prize honouring innovation, as well as £80,000 (US$102,688).

An ice stupa. Photo credit: Sonam Wangchuk

It is the latest solution in a long line of solutions aiming to tackle the ancient problem with water scarcity the Himalayan foothills face. In spite of its wondrous natural scenery, life in Ladakh is harsh. At 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above sea level, it is nothing short of a desert, with an average of 50mm of rainfall per year. “The only reason people can live there us the glaciers,” Wangchuk remarked during his interview with The Guardian.

Every winter, elephantine ice shelves form at high altitudes and slowly melt during the spring, filling streams and replenishing water supplies to fuel the population. But recently, due to climate change, the pattern has changed and foundered.

Soaring unnatural high temperatures around the globe threaten ice shelves worldwide, but research scientists believe that the glaciers found in the Himalayas are dwindling faster than any other in the world. Even though less water is accessible to the farm and villages in Ladakh, if the glaciers continue melting at their current rate, the sheer volume of resulting water from the rapidly-melting glaciers can overwhelm stream banks, bringing floods.

Wangchuk is certainly not the first to attempt wresting a sustainable water supply from the famous mountain range; residents of the Hindu Kush and the neighbouring Karakoram ranges have practiced what is now known as “glacier grafting” for centuries. They slowly chip away at extant ice shelves and collect the pieces at a higher altitude with the hopes of creating new glaciers that will supply them with water throughout the coming seasons for drinking and irrigation.

“The problem was that it couldn’t be done in lower altitudes, where people actually live,” Wangchuk said. Lakes were also located in areas that were heavily shaded, and they also melted too fast for the water to make up the difference lost through rising temperatures. Adapting his idea to the unforgiving environment quickly became Wangchuk’s single focus. The ice hanging under the bridge has given him the moment of eureka he needed.

“The ice needed to be shaded – but how?” Wangchuk commented. “We couldn’t have it under a bridge, or use reflectors, which aren’t practical at scale. So we thought of this conical shape: making ice shade itself.”

In a way, it was biomimicry – artificial innovation rooted in natural phenomena – in this case, Wangchuk modelled the required shade for the glaciers on the way plant burrs attach themselves to dogs.

The conical shape quickly took off, able to maximise the volume of ice that could be “grown”, all while also minimising the total surface area exposed to the sun’s rays. All in all, the ice would be able to continue melting well into spring, providing up to an estimated 5,000 litres of water a day by “storing it in the sky”, as Wangchuk put it. An additional aesthetic benefit was its resemblance to the Buddhist stupas – respected religious sites dedicated to meditation and worship – that calmly decorated the surrounding landscape. It was an important factor for the engineer, “Because it resembles something we have in our tradition, it is made more close to the population, to their hearts,” he explained.

Having his work harmonised with tradition and nature is intrinsic to Wangchuk. “Generally I like things to be simple and self-acting,” he explained. “For me, simplicity is beauty, simplicity is the ultimate satisfaction.”

And simple the ice stupas are. Formed by running pipes under the line of frost, where water temperature threads the line between liquid and solid states, the pipes then turn upwards, towards the sky, loosing the water into air that is -20°C. The water is then frozen in the extreme cold as it begins to descend back towards earth.

Ice stupa loosing water into the sky to form artificial glaciers. Photo credit: Sonam Wingchuk/Rolex Awards

In October 2013, the first prototype was completed and projected to melt by May 2013. But it forged on for 18 more days. Later, another, much larger stupa, was grown near a forest, keeping them watered and hydrated through the driest season of the year – which lasts until July in Ladakh.

The original two stupas were built using crowdsourced money. But with the money he won in December 2016, Wangchuk will be growing another 20 more, each around 100 feet (30 meters) tall, the next generation of stupas.

Wangchuk will also be funnelling his money to an “alternative university” in Ladakh to train young people to look for solutions to the issues facing the region in their surrounding environments. “Solutions for the mountains, by the mountain people,” he said.


Source: The Guardian