Ladakh’s water

 By Chris Dalby

The communities of Ladakh in northern India are suffering from climate change at both ends of the stick: the snowfalls they were used to have dwindled to be replaced with devastating rains. But it is difficult to state just how profoundly this has affected Ladakh on a deep level, beyond the floods and heat…

Climate change is modifying the very architecture of the area, damaging precious religious monuments and causing many residents to seek their fortunes elsewhere. According to The Economic Times, homes and buildings in Ladakh once almost all had wooden roofs to withstand snow. They have now switched to concrete protection to withstand heavy rain. Numerous Buddhist carvings and sculptures have also been damaged by the floods, and the melting glaciers have caused water to continuously seep inside buildings. When the rainy season starts in June, icy run-offs and heavier than usual downpours flood the valley, bringing too much water. But by the arrival of April and May—key months for planting—the community wrestles with a different solution: a lack of water. For years, melting glaciers provided a solution, with local communities deploying innovative irrigation solutions to bring the run-off from mountain to field. With glaciers now retreating up the mountainsides, however, these techniques are becoming more difficult. Until one engineer was inspired. Sonam Wangchuk simply decided to build his own glaciers, called an ice stupa.

The characteristic colorful flags with Buddhist prayers (McKay Savage, Flickr)

What is an ice stupa?

Wangchuk began by collecting the run-off from the melting glaciers during the wet months, preventing much of it from being wasted by flowing into the Indus River. He then crowdfunded a 30-meter-high artificial glacier prototype, more commonly known as an “ice stupa”, built from 2.3 kilometers of piping, which stored the water in and around itself. Connected to an uphill water source that supplies the village, it diverted water that was then pumped to the top of its own structure. Despite the temperatures with which it must contend (10-20 degrees in winter), its vertical design means that it melts much slower and progressively releases water as needed. According to Wangchuk, the prototype worked better than anticipated, lasting six months without melting and providing 1.5 million liters of water for irrigation of total capacity, drinking and planting trees. The response to Wangchuk’s idea has been immediate. With multiple international prizes in hand, he is now on a mission to build more stupas across the most vulnerable parts of northern India. His elegant, affordable solution could provide water supply to millions. In the winter of 2018-2019, 10 villages in Ladakh got their own stupas, and similar ideas have been applied in the Alps while interest has been seen even further afield.

The technique of the ice stupa is innovative in several advantageous ways:

  • It uses local resources to provide drinking water, namely the melting glaciers.
  • It was engineered, designed and implemented locally, which has long been a focus of climate change best practices.
  • It can be replicated at easy cost without the involvement of complex technology.
  • Its maximum efficiency sees it developed as part of a program, alongside efforts such as tree planting and new irrigation methods.
The science behind Sonam Wangchuk's ice stupa

But do the ice stupas work, and can they find local support?

Response to the project has been effusive but questions still remain. Just how viable are these stupas as long-term solutions for mountain communities facing periods of drought? And can these stupas either provide regular drinking water for people and cattle or enough irrigation for fields? In terms of viability, the geographic conditions must be right. While melting glaciers provide a source of regular water for the stupas, few other settlements can count on that. Beyond this, the success rate of the stupas seems to be mixed. They can top out at the height of a 10-story building, and one at the village of Takmachik in India’s region of Jammu and Kashmir wielded half a million gallons of water from March to July. This would be enough to cover much of the irrigation for an average Indian village in this region. However, the team behind the stupas reject any claim that their invention alone is a major step in the fight against climate change. “We don’t look at ice stupas as just a solution to climate change”, Simant Verma, a project manager in the building of the stupas, told the New Yorker. “That’s not how we’re trying to put this out in the world. We are trying to foster innovation, so that other ideas can come out of it”.

The scarcity of water supply due to climate change, together with growing tourism, are putting the inhabitants of Ladakh to the test (Christopher Michel, Wikimedia)

Do people want them?

Despite the positive global press, the local response to ice stupas has been hostile at times. Farmers in the first communities to build the stupas have repeatedly protested that they divert water away from irrigation and personal needs without making a measurable difference. Downstream village communities claim they are receiving less water and that they can no longer prepare for the drought in their usual methods. In the Ladakh area, the village of Phyang, which owns the stupa, along with the village of Phey, further downstream, are at loggerheads. According to Sonam Phunsuk, a farmer from Phey, “they divert all the water of the stream (Phyang Nallah) from November for creating the ice stupas. This is quite dangerous for our farms”. He explained to The Third Pole that traditionally, these communities collected the run-off water and used it on farmland and wasteland around the village in order to replenish the local groundwater. The local administration ordered the provisional suspension of all water diversion activities in 2018 related to the stupa until a team of experts could ascertain the risks. While the results of this investigation have not been made public, the proliferation of ice stupas in 2019 makes it likely that these concerns were dismissed. According to Wangchuk, there is plenty of water for everyone. Of the 100 million cubic meters of water in the Phyang Nallah every year, he estimates the two villages use less “than 10 million for their needs in the five months of the farming season”. He also explained that, with just 4 million cubic meters, over 50 stupas could be built.

The spectacular Buddhist monument Stupa Shanti (Vinay Goyal, Wikimedia)

So what’s next?

The next few years will be crucial for the ice stupa movements. With more sprouting up across the Indian Himalayas in 2019, growth is expected to continue in 2020 and beyond. However, it is difficult to estimate whether this growth will be driven by need and efficiency or a desire to try a new fad. Either way, Wangchuk’s efforts to popularize his invention appear to be paying off in one way—with tourism. While Ladakh may not be top of many people’s to-do lists in India given in its remoteness and recent tensions in Kashmir, tourists have begun appearing to see the stupas. One enterprising group of young people in Ladakh even built their own stupa, not to store water, but to convert into a restaurant.

READ MORE: Solutions for water scarcity by Criselda Diala-McBride

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.