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Sonam Wangchuk's Ice Stupas Are Firing Up Interest From Ladakh To The Swiss Alps

18/05/2016 7:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Shailendra Yashwant

"The possibilities are endless." Sonam Wangchuk could be talking about any of the many ideas he has thrown at me in the last hour, but in this case he was referring to the "ice stupa", a conical two-storey-tall artificial glacier that was drip-releasing frozen water in the middle of a very hot and dry May, irrigating 5000 poplar and willow trees on the outskirts of Phayang Monastery in the mountain desert of Ladakh.

The applications of ice stupas range from irrigating dry and arid mountain deserts to mitigating dangers posed by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFS). Most of all, Sonam is excited about reviving the rural economy of Ladakh by promoting ice stupas as a winter attraction for tourists.

The Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers...

This is an idea that has already been lapped up by the tourism authorities of Switzerland. Sonam Wangchuk has been invited by the president of Pontresina, a municipality in the Engadine valley near the winter sports resort town of St. Moritz, to build ice stupas to add to their bouquet of winter tourism attractions. After this prototype is built and tested, the Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers in the upper reaches of the Swiss mountains.

"In exchange for the ice stupa technology, the Swiss will share their expertise and experience in sustainable tourism development with the people of Phayang, to revive the dying economy of the village," says Wangchuk.

Bringing a brilliant idea to life

The founder of the SECMOL Alternative School, Wangchuk, a Ladakhi, is a mechanical engineer, education reformist and a futurist exploring alternative technologies. His projects are wide-ranging: solar-heated mud buildings that need no heating even in -25C; underground mud pipes that are one-tenth the cost of the cheapest water pipes; a solar-heated bio-gas plant; rocket stoves that cook and heat with a fraction of the wood needed by other stoves and even bake bread with exhaust heat; and low-cost greenhouses that enable large scale farming even in Ladakhi winters.

The challenge was to store water vertically without pumps and power. Wangchuk figured out how to use gravity to get the shape he wanted.

Ladakh is a mountain desert that only receives 50-70 mm rainfall annually, and none from April to June. For centuries, Ladakhis have harvested snow melt from high mountains for irrigation. Channels, often many kilometres long, ferry the water to fields. This has kept them self-sufficient for a long time but the Ladakhis are facing new challenges due to climate change. Erratic snowfall, decreasing rainfall, warmer summers, colder winters and unexpected pestilence has baffled the local population. Harvesting water is the biggest need of the hour.

The ice stupa is an improvisation on original experiments by Chewang Norphel on artificial glaciers. These ran into technical difficulties, as they had to be built above 4,000 meters and in locations that were shaded by mountains on the south. If not built in a specific location, the glaciers would melt away before crucial months of April and May when farmers needed water for irrigation the most.

Wangchuk realized the melting speed of artificial glaciers was linked to the surface area exposed to sun and wind. Chewang Norphel's glaciers were 2 metres deep and spread over a wide area. Wangchuk's innovation was to make them taller, reducing the surface area for the same volume of ice.

Ice stupas can also help mitigate dangers posed by glacier lake outburst floods (GLOF) in the Himalayan states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and J&K...

The challenge was to store water vertically without pumps and power. Wangchuk figured out how to use gravity to get the shape he wanted. He started working on his hypothesis in the winter of 2014-15 with a motley bunch of students and villagers.

Following the success of the prototype, Sonam was able to raise US$125,000 through US-based crowd-funding website Indiegogo to scale up the project.

But the project that was launched last November almost failed because of low quality and spurious pipes supplied by unethical traders resulting in loss of ₹25 lakh and many days of hard work and labour put in by the villagers and the ice stupa team.

"We were cheated and disappointed and were staring at a failed project when thankfully Mr. Ajit Jain of Jain Irrigation stepped in to supply the correct pipes immediately and Commander B. Manikantham of the Indian Air Force volunteered to airlift the pipes to Phayang. That is how we were able to salvage the project,"

says a relieved Wangchuk, "We are ready to scale up the project, and will build 80 more such ice stupas in the coming winter and a network of irrigation canals to help farmers through the lean water periods."

Ice stupas can also help mitigate dangers posed by glacier lake outburst floods (GLOF) in the Himalayan states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir that are surrounded by about 300 potentially dangerous glacial lakes formed by glacial melt.

The possibilities are indeed endless for this made-in-India, low-cost adaptation and mitigation technology that has multiple applications for mountain people around the world.

A GLOF occurs when the dam blocking a glacier's path collapses. The collapse may occur due to erosion, build up of water pressure, an avalanche, heavy snow or earthquake. When the outburst occurs, hundreds of millions of cubic metres of water dammed by a glacier or a moraine are released at a phenomenal rate, causing devastation and havoc downstream.

Reducing the volume of water in the lake by pumping or siphoning the water out in a controlled system is one way of reducing the magnitude of the discharge at the time of breach. Sonam Wangchuk realized that the ice stupa technique could be applied to siphon off water from glacial lakes, both to mitigate disaster and to harvest and store the glacier melt. Recently, the Sikkim government invited Sonam Wangchuk to test his technique on a lake that has formed on the Phuktal Glacier and which poses a massive risk to downstream communities.

The possibilities are indeed endless for this made-in-India, low-cost adaptation and mitigation technology that has multiple applications for mountain people around the world. Proof of it will be out there this winter for all to see, from Ladakh to Sikkim and the Swiss Alps.

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