The Man Who Creates Artificial Glaciers To Meet The Water Needs Of Ladakh

Ladakh’s beautiful mountains might be a paradise for tourists, but ask the locals who have to struggle to meet their basic water needs every year. Chewang Norphel put his engineering skills to a better use and created artificial glaciers to provide water in this cold and dry mountainous region. Know more about his remarkably innovative technology and how it works.

Chewang Norphel, a 79-year old retired civil engineer, has always been a solution provider. The story goes back to 1966 when he was posted in Zanskar, one of the most backward and remote areas in Ladakh, as Sub Divisional Officer. He, along with his team, had to construct school buildings, bridges, canals, roads etc. in that area. The task was very difficult to execute due to lack of skilled labour.

So he started doing the masonry work himself and trained a few villagers to help him. After some years, when he went back to that village, he found out that the villagers he had trained had become perfect mistry and were earning handsome salaries.

Chewang Norphel. Photo Courtesy: Athar Parvaiz

Chewang Norphel. Photo Courtesy: Athar Parvaiz

 “It gave me a great pleasure. I was happy to see that a little support from my side had changed their lives,” Norphel says. This was just the beginning of the wonders he was destined to do.

Today, he is called the “Ice Man of India” and has created 10 artificial glaciers in Ladakh to help people deal with water scarcity in this cold, mountainous region.

Ladakh, a beautiful location with magnificent scenery around and exquisite beauty, takes everyone’s breath away. But, it is not the same with the people of Ladakh as the cold, dry and infertile land makes their lives harder than we could imagine.

Fortunately, the situation is slowly changing as Ladakh now has artificial glaciers to meet their needs and people have Norphel to thank for his amazing contribution.

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The important thing is to control the velocity of the water.

Born in 1936, Norphel comes from a farming background and has served in the government service for more than 36 years before he had to take an early retirement due to his bad health. Being at home was not something Norphel enjoyed doing, and at the same time, the poor living conditions in Ladakh constantly troubled him. He thought of putting his engineering skills to a better use.

“Almost all the villages in Ladakh have roads, culverts, bridges, buildings or irrigation systems made by me,” says Norphel. But his biggest contribution came in the form of artificial glaciers.

Being a cold mountain desert, Ladakh sees a low average rainfall of 50 mm annually making people dependent upon glaciers as their primary water source.

graphical representation of how an artificial glacier works.

Graphical representation of how an artificial glacier works.

80 percent of the population depends on farming, and their main source of irrigation water is the water that comes from the melting of snow and glaciers. Because of global warming, the glaciers are receding quickly and as a result, farmers face a lot of difficulty in getting adequate water. On the other hand, a lot of water gets wasted during the winter months as, due to the severe cold climate, farmers cannot grow any crops in that season.

“So I thought that if we could conserve this water in the form of ice, it can be of help to farmers to some extent during the irrigation period, particularly during the sowing season. The artificial glaciers, being quite close to the villages, melt earlier than the natural glaciers. Also, getting water during the sowing period is the most crucial concern of the farmers because the natural glaciers start melting in the month of June and sowing starts in April and May,” he says.

The idea first came to him when he saw water dripping from a tap which was kept open so as to avoid the water from freezing in winter and bursting the tap. The water gradually froze into the shape of an ice sheet as it came in touch with the ground and made a pool.

It struck him that the water that melts from natural glaciers due to high temperatures in summer goes to waste as it flows into the river. Instead, if this water can be stored in summer and autumn so that it can form a glacier in winter, then this artificial glacier would melt in spring and provide water to the villagers at the right time.

It was now time for action, and he put all his engineering knowledge, field experience and passion to work. He started his first experiment in Phutse village. He made canals to divert the water from the main stream to small catchment areas located four kms away from the village. He also created a shaded area to keep the water frozen in winters.

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These glaciers are constructed in a shade to prevent them from melting quickly.

And, as these glaciers are located at a lower altitude of 13,000 feet as compared to the original glaciers which are located at 18,000 feet, they start melting earlier than the mainstream ones and provide water to the villagers when they need it the most in April.

“The main technique used to create artificial glaciers is to control the velocity of water as much as possible. The region is a hilly area and that is why the gradient of streams is very steep. As a result, in the main streams the water usually does not freeze. So what we have done is we have diverted the water to a shadow area by constructing a diversion channel with a mild grade. When it reaches the site, the water is released downward of the hill, distributing it in a small quantity so that the velocity can be minimized, and side by side we have constructed ice retaining walls in series to store the frozen water. This is the entire methodology of the artificial glacier,” he explains.

retaining walls for artificial glacier

Retaining walls are built to contain the frozen water.

His first project cost him Rs.90,000. The width of the glacier ranges generally from 50 to 200 feet and the depth from 2 to 7 feet. This low cost model used only locally sourced material and help from the local community. Norphel has successfully built 10 glaciers so far. The smallest one is 500 feet long in Umla and the largest is 2 km long in Phutse.

His efforts have increased the agricultural production, thereby increasing the income of the locals. This has also reduced the migration to cities. His simple technique has brought water closer to the villages, and most importantly, made it available when the villagers need it the most.

In the future, he wants to continue making the glaciers and plans to build in other areas like Lahol, Spiti, Zangskar, etc. The only thing that comes as a challenge is lack of adequate funds.

“As you sow, so you reap. There is no doubt that if one has strong determination and dedication, there is nothing impossible in the world. That is what I believe,” Norphel says.

His simple idea has received acclaim across the globe and he has proved that if man is the one responsible for disturbing nature, he also has the capacity to save it. You just need the right intention to do so.

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