Creating Rivers of Ice - Combating Climate Change with Artificial Glaciers

How Chewang Norphel is single-handedly fighting drought with an ingenious innovation.

By Unsung

Photography: Mahesh Bhat. Writing: Anita Pratap

Chewang Norphel at Phey Village, near Leh, Ladakh. December 2004 by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Chewang Norphel

Among the jagged peaks, ancient Buddhist monasteries and the Himalayan landscapes of northern India lies Ladakh. For parts of the year, high passes leading to the region become choked with snow, rendering the community inaccessible. The Himalayas have one of the greatest resources of fresh water in the world, in the form of snow and ice. Ancient glaciers feed Ladakh but, most of the run-off leaks into the Indus river, leaving it crippled, with no easy access to water.

Determined to find a way to harness the ample natural resources nearby, 83-year-old Chewang Norphel developed a pioneering solution - artificial glaciers.

Chewang Norphel by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Norphel was born in 1936 to Tibetan parents in Skarra village, 2.5 kilometres from Leh, the main city of Ladakh region.

All 100 families in his village were subsistence farmers, cultivating wheat, barley, mustard and peas to feed themselves and their livestock.

As a child, Norphel tended cows and yaks while his father tilled the hard, crusty soil.

Tucked away in the Himalayas between Pakistan and China, Ladakh is a sweeping expanse of land – rich in history, stark in beauty, colourful in culture and awe-inspiring in its Buddhist heritage.

But misery has clouded this Shangri-La. Ladakh’s greatest enemy is neither its remoteness nor its winter chill, but its aridity.

It’s a cruel case of scarcity amidst abundance. Melting snows generate millions of gallons of water. But as the water flows into the mountain streams too late in the year, most goes to waste.

Leh, Ladakh by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Nothing grows in Ladakh in winter - it’s too cold. Cultivation is limited to the extremely short season of warmth during spring and summer.

Spring arrives in April, but the great Himalayan glaciers do not begin to melt and replenish the mountain streams until June.

Stream flows in the middle of winter, Leh by Mahesh BhatUnsung

All through the winter, even when the temperature is -15 degrees Celsius, glaciers melt as the sun comes up.

The meltwater does not refreeze since it flows down so fast. It rejoins the Indus and flows away.

Changla valley in September 2005, before the formation of artificial glacier by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Changla reservoir is about 3 miles above sea level.

This is a reservoir built to check the flow of water from the glaciers.

Norphel’s simple technique checks the flow of water by using diversion canals at heights of 12000-15000 ft.

He builds simple bunds using stones and very little mortar. They are held together by an iron mesh.

Water thus collected in the reservoir is let down slowly through narrow outlets. Reduction in the speed of the flow helps to refreeze it.

This was photographed in September of 2005.

Changla Valley in February 2006 by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Changla artificial glacier as seen in February 2006.

Winter was receding.

This is the highest watershed project in the world.

Spalding family in Sakthi Village, Ladakh by Mahesh BhatUnsung

The Spalding family at Sakthi Village, downstream of the Changla artificial glacier.

The meltwater from the glacier provides for the villagers of Sakthi during summer.

Phutse artificial glacier by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Phutse glacier was the first one built by Norphel.

This is the largest artificial glacier, and it took several months to complete.

A government school in Phu Valley, Ladakh by Mahesh BhatUnsung

A government-run elementary school in Phu Valley, en route to Phutse glacier.

It helps the people of several villages downstream, including Phu.

Sharnu Village by Mahesh BhatUnsung

A view of the rugged mountain range in Sharnu.

Its thirst is quenched by the Phutse artificial glacier.

Chewang Norphel by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Chewang Norphel walks the seemingly barren landscape of Ladakh.

If his dream of building a glacier in every village of Ladakh is realised, Ladakhis will be able to grow many more crops during the summer months.

Zing' - a reservoir by Mahesh BhatUnsung

Norphel needs no studies to convince him of the threat of global warming.

With growing alarm, he watches the mighty Himalayan glaciers shrink and recede further from his village with every passing year.

Stok mountain range by Mahesh BhatUnsung

In his childhood, the Stok glacier covered half the distant mountain range that framed his horizon. Now the glacier is a mere icing on the crest.

He yearns to restore the ice caps by building more glaciers.

River Sindhu by Mahesh BhatUnsung

And he sees the urgent need to build reservoirs in every one of Leh’s 112 villages, to harness the water instead of letting it all go waste into the mighty Indus River in autumn.

India, he notes, spends Rs. 2 crores* (approx. 283,000 USD) a day on maintaining its troops on the Siachen glacier.

One day’s military expenditure on this icy wasteland could build 50 glaciers in Ladakh.

*Some estimates peg this at Rs.5 crores per day (50 million USD).

Zing' - a reservoir by Mahesh BhatUnsung

But Norphel sees no grandeur in his achievements.

He remains modest even after winning numerous accolades and prestigious national and international awards.

Chewang Norphel at Phey Village, near Leh, Ladakh. December 2004 by Mahesh BhatUnsung

What does he think helped him succeed in his efforts? He says, cheerfully:

“People’s cooperation. You have to make people share your vision, participate in your dream.

"Without people’s cooperation, you cannot achieve anything.”

Credits: Story

Photography: Mahesh Bhat.
Writing: Anita Pratap

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content. Unsung

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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