The idea behind artificial glaciers is to freeze and hold the water that keeps flowing and wasting away down the streams and into the rivers throughout the winter. Instead, this ice will melt in the springtime, just when the fields need watering. The concept of artificial glaciers is not new to Ladakh. Our ancestors used to have a process of ‘grafting glaciers’ in the very high reaches of mountains. In recent years, one of our senior engineers Mr. Norphel, has been working on a similar idea for water conservation.
However, since these are based on horizontal ice formation, they need very high altitude locations (above 4,000m), constant maintenance and a north-facing valley to shade the ice from the spring sun. Seeing these problems and after discussions with Mr Norphel Sonam Wangchuk started working on a new approach in which the glaciers would be free of location, frequent maintenance and shading requirement etc.
In the new model, this is achieved by freezing the stream water vertically in the form of huge ice towers or cones of 30 to 50m height that look very similar to the local sacred mud structures called Stupa or Chorten. These ice mountains can be built right next to the village itself where the water is needed. Very little effort or investment would be needed except for laying one underground pipeline from a higher point on the stream to the outskirts of the village. Normally the head difference is easily 100m over a distance of roughly one to three kilometers.
HOW IT WORKS
The idea is very simple and needs no pumps or power. We all know that water maintains its level. Therefore water piped from 60m upstream would easily rise close to 60m up from ground when it reaches the village. For simplicity we can imagine that the pipe is mounted on a mobile-phone tower of that height, and then it is made to fall from that height in cold Ladakhi winter nights when it is -30 to -50°C outside (with wind chill factor). The water would freeze by the time it reaches the ground and slowly form a huge cone or Ice Stupa roughly 30 to 50m high. In reality we won’t even need a tower structure since we can let the piped water first freeze at the ground level and then mount higher meter by meter as the thickness of the ice grows, finally reaching close to the height of the source.
The idea is also to conserve this tower of ice as long into the summer as possible so that as it melts, it feeds the fields until the real glacial melt waters start flowing in June. Since these ice cones extend vertically upwards towards the sun, they receive fewer of the sun’s rays per the volume of water stored; hence, they will take much longer to melt compared to an artificial glacier of the same volume formed horizontally on a flat surface.
In order to test these ideas last winter (2013-2014) at the SECMOL Alternative Institute, we built a prototype. We chose a spot that was fully exposed to sunlight and located at the lowest altitude (hence warmest) possible in the whole of Leh valley i.e. on the bank of Indus at our campus near Phey Village. This was done to prove that if it works in these conditions, then it can work anywhere in Ladakh. It took us one month to build an Ice Stupa approximately 7m (22 feet) in height, fed by the campus supply pipe which has its headwork roughly 15m above the spot. We would consider the experiment a success if the Ice Stupa lasted until the 1st of May to melt. We were delighted when, on May 1st, the Ice Stupa was still 3m high and still providing water to the earth around it! (By the way, the entire Stupa did finally finish melting on the 18th of May, thus proving that bigger masses at much higher altitudes could last well into mid-summer.)
Therefore we invited His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey, the head of the Drikung Kargyud lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, to visit our school and bless the Stupa. His Holiness is known for his deep concern for the environment and keen interest in greening deserts. His Holiness invited SECMOL to build the fullscale version of the proto-type in Phyang village in order to solve the problems of water shortage and greening the vast deserts of the village. That is how the current project started.