In October 2013, Sonam Wangchuk, the social activist and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, launched the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier Project in Phyang village, Leh.
A path-breaking idea, which was conceived to solve water scarcity problems in this cold desert, aimed to freeze millions of litres of water in the form of ‘ice stupas.’
Earlier this year, the village of Gya Meeru, which is 75 km away from Leh on the highway towards Manali, at an altitude of over 14,000 feet above sea level, opened what is probably India’s first ever ‘ice café,’ serving tea, coffee, traditional butter tea and Maggi.
This ice café was set up inside a giant ice stupa, which Sonam Chosdup, Nawang Phunstog, and Jigmet Tundup had constructed for a competition started by Sonam Wangchuk in October 2018 as part of the Ice Stupa Project of Ladakh.
The objective of this competition was to build the highest ice stupa and to spread awareness about this artificial glacier technology, besides sensitising the masses about water scarcity. As per reports, the competition concluded on International Water Day—March 23, 2019.
In total, 12 villages competed for the Rs 5 lakh prize money. Gya Meeru finished joint second, constructing an ice stupa standing over 75 feet and carrying 4.5 million litres of water. Winning a prize money of Rs 1.5 lakh, it garnered the most media attention.
Back in October 2018, Wangchuk’s Ice Stupa team conducted a workshop for all contestants, familiarising them with the process and necessity of constructing this structure.
“During the workshop, they taught us how to make an ice stupa, what challenges we will face while making it and how to work around them. It was a great learning experience,” says Sonam Chosdup, a student of ITI-Leh, speaking to The Better India.
For the most part, Sonam, Nawang and Jigmet constructed the ice stupa by themselves.
“The only assistance we received was the Rs 25,000 from the ice stupa team to purchase a 300-metre pipe with a thickness of 75 mm,” he says.
“The idea is straightforward and needs no pumps or power. Water maintains its level, and piped from 60 ft upstream rises close to 60 ft from the ground when it reaches the village. When the water falls from that height in the cold Ladakhi winter nights, it freezes by the time it reaches the ground and forms a huge cone or ice stupa. We can let the piped water freeze at ground level and then mount the pipe higher and higher until we reach the approximate height of the source,” says this explainer on the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, website.
However, these three had to further innovate on top of this ingenious idea.
“On November 11, we held a basic demonstration of this process, which helped us understand the viability of this project. We had to address complaints of the structure collapsing after it reaches a certain height. To address this problem, we first constructed a dome-shaped steel frame with pillars to hold the structure and covered it with wood and a green net. We did this through the course of November 12 and 13 and on the 14th, we started the process of letting the water flow,” says Chosdup.
By the end of November, the entire steel dome was covered in ice. Through the biting cold months of December and January, you would see one foot of ice freeze in three days. The stupa eventually attained a height of around 78-79 feet, claims Chosdup.
Also, unlike the standard 60 ft height differential stated in the HIAL explainer, water was piped from about 110 ft upstream from a spring.
“As the water flowed towards the site of the ice stupa, we reduced the radius of the pipe from 75 mm to about 40 mm. We attach a sprinkler to the pipe, which released droplets of water. Due to the difference in height, pressure builds up in the pipe, and the water passes along, flows up and out from its raised tip through a sprinkler into sub-zero air. The water then freezes as it falls to gradually form an ice stupa,” informs Chosdup.
In Ladakh, the water begins to freeze in November-December, and this goes on till the first or second week of March. In November they released the water from the spring after sunset, around 5 pm until 9 am the next morning. In December, even the days are frigid, and this allowed them to let the water flow all through the day. By March, however, they switched the flow of water off during the day, and let it flow at night.
“By the end of November, the stupa had attained a height of 40-50 feet. In December, as a consequence of the pipes freezing up, we couldn’t release water for about 15 days. But by the end of March, the stupa attained a height of above 75 feet,” claims Chosdup.
At the start of the year, tourists began pouring into Gya Meeru and began requesting for hot tea and snacks, alongside locals.
“We figured that the corridor of ice leading up the dome could be used as a café, provided we extend it a bit and put chairs there. After a few tweaks, we opened the café in the first week of February, serving ginger lemon tea, masala tea, coffee, local butter tea and even Maggi,” he says.
On the weekdays, the café would receive about 100 customers, but the weekends saw that number jump to around 700.
Rising customer demand and making these hot beverages inside the ice structure did have consequences though. The ice had begun to melt.
“What we did was shift the kitchen outside and leave the customers inside. At one time, the café could hold 25-30 customers,” informs Chosdup.
By the start of April, the structure started to melt. Recently, upon visiting the structure, Chosdup found that only 50 feet of the structure is left.
While they have had to shut the café down now because of the melting ice, Nawang claims that with the farming season in full swing, the water from the melting ice will be used to irrigate lands not just in Gya but neighbouring villages as well.
“Well, Gya does not have a serious water problem, and for us, this was a successful experiment. In the coming year, we would like to construct these ice stupas in other villages as well, particularly where there is water scarcity,” adds Jigmet.
All proceeds from the café were spent giving 90 elderly residents from Gya a one-day tour/pilgrimage to Buddhist monasteries across the Stakna, Matho, Stok, Spithuk, Shey, and Thiksey areas of Leh district.
This was indeed a winter well spent for the three lads from Gya.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)