Chewang Norphel may seem like an ordinary villager but in reality he is far from the ordinary. In a place 13,000 feet above sea level, this remarkable man is taking on the global warming challenge head on and doing something extraordinary . He is building glaciers.
Using artificial glaciers to slowdown the global warming, may seem like a far fetched concept but Norphel’s technique to harvest water using artificial glaciers has doubled agriculture yields in one of India’s most climate change–ravaged regions, Ladakh.
This 79-year old civil engineer has built 12 artificial glaciers which are are used mainly to provide irrigation to crops and in some cases to sustain micro hydro power.
The need for artificial glaciers
Water in Ladakh is a treacherous case of scarcity amidst abundance.Melting snows generate millions of gallons of water. But as it flows into the mountain streams too late in the year, most of the water goes waste and Norphel realised this early on.
“I realised that all the problems in the region were related to water. In most areas, it was scarce. In others, it was being wasted,” he says.
“The best way to deal with this is the construction of clean, efficient channels. I noticed in Leh that water did not freeze in the channels but did so in the thin iron pipes. As the pipes are made of metal and are very thin, they lose heat quite rapidly,” he adds.
Understandably, nothing grows in Ladakh in winter as it’s too cold and cultivation is limited to the extremely short season of spring and summer warmth. Spring arrives in April but by the time the great Himalayan glaciers melt to fill the mountain streams, it is June.
Farmers in Ladakh mainly rely on glacial meltwater for their crops and they need water in April to first moisten the dry, winter chapped fields so they can plough the field and plant the seeds. And thereafter in June, the fields can be watered by the gurgling mountain streams.
The problem however, is that there is no water in April because the glaciers are still frozen.
This forced the villagers to wait until June to moisten, plough and plant the seeds. In June, all this had to be rushed through. Hence, the earth was not sufficiently prepared, dooming the fields to low and erratic yields, and sometimes even crop failures.
Norphel, once in his yard noticed that water from a stream had frozen in the shade of a tree, but flowed freely everywhere else. He realized that the water had frozen because it flowed slower in the area under the tree, while the rest of the water flowed quicker. This led him to come up with an ingenious idea of building artificial glaciers to solve the water problem of the native people of Leh-Ladakh.
Turning idea into reality
With the help of local villagers, Norphel started channelizing water from various streams into a reservoir for water. He dug and built diversion canals to channel the water from main mountain streams to suitable water catchment sites about four kms away from the village.
He designed the reservoirs in a series of steppe formations, locating them in mountain shade so that the water would remain frozen in winter to form large glaciers. From the glacier, feeder canals took the water back to the natural mountain streams that irrigated the villages.
Norphel’s idea worked. As the glaciers were located lower down, they melted early and the villagers start getting water in April when they needed it the most.
Norphel’s largest glacier is the one at the village Phuktsey, which is 1,000 ft long, 150 ft wide and 4 ft in depth. This glacier can supply water for the entire village of 700 people and cost Rs 90,000 to make.
The glaciers made by him solved not only the irrigation problem but it also recharged the ground water.
Norphel feels that artificial glaciers are better alternatives to dams. Dams are environmental and social problems as well as they drain financial resources. His artificial glaciers on the other hand are created at the fraction of the cost of building a dam.
People in neighboring countries are also using his method of artificial glacier to solve the scarcity of water in their areas. Norphel also known as the “ice man” and the “glacier man” was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, in 2015.
Check out his story below: