The Times of India carried a story on Saturday about a novel plan developed by a Ladakhi man to counteract the effects of global warming. The Copenhagen climate conference may have been a bust, and glaciers in the high mountain ranges of Asia are certainly still receding, but Chewang Norphel is counteracting the problem in his own way.
Norphel, a 74-year old former civil engineer, realizes that global warming is slowly melting the glaciers, which provide the water that supports human life in the high desert valleys of Ladakh. They are receding farther up into the mountains. As they recede, they begin to melt and release water into the rivers later each year. The effect is that the melt water, so necessary for crop irrigation in the spring, does not arrive until it is too late to do the crops much good.
The “Glacier Man,” as he is called, told the paper, “Farmers often complained of [a] water shortage that was eating into their livelihood. This bothered me and I would spend hours searching for a solution. That’s when the idea of high altitude water harvesting occurred to me.” He began constructing artificial glaciers, and today Ladakh has 10 of them.
Inspiration came to him over 20 years ago when he noticed that the water he had left dripping from his faucets at night during the winter to prevent his pipes from freezing had accumulated in his nearby garden and frozen by morning. It occurred to him that that could be a way to store water high above the valleys, so people could draw on it the following spring when it melted.
Instead of building large-volume reservoirs, however, he has been building shallow impoundments so they will easily freeze in early autumn and store water in a frozen state. He uses networks of pipes to divert water into his shallow ponds on the shady sides of hills, and he keeps the volume of water low on purpose so it will quickly freeze solid. While the higher elevation, massive, natural glaciers now begin melting in late June, his shallow, artificial glaciers, which are not as high, start melting in April, when the farmers most need the water. Each one of his artificial glaciers stores about one million cubic feet of water, enough to irrigate about 200 hectares of farm land below.
He has had his setbacks. Flash floods in 2006 damaged five of his artificial glaciers. Norphel bounced back, however. He obtained help from India’s central government, the army, and local residents to rebuild them—and add more. At this point, 113 villages in Ladakh and 100 in Kargil get water from his artificial glaciers to help their farmers through the growing season.
He is concerned that he might not have too many years to keep working, so he is filming his projects in order to pass along his inspiration to the younger generation. He grabs a chunk of ice and tells the reporter, “I want to make sure that when I am gone, Ladakh continues to remain green and its people prosperous.”
A Christian Science Monitor article about Norphel back in October said that he is constantly experimenting—tweaking his designs to see what will work best. He varies the depths of his impoundments from five to seven feet. He tries various shady locations—all to find out the most effective approach. A project under construction for the village of Stakmo is employing 20 people, with shovels, to build the 900 feet of rock walls that will be needed to create the impoundments and trap the water runoff. Like the others, it will then freeze in early autumn and melt in spring, so the villagers can have water.
Leh, and the rest of Ladakh, have been enduring a serious cold snap recently. Temperatures last week reached 20 degrees below zero Celsius (4 below Fahrenheit), but Ladakhis realize that, despite the temporary cold, the glaciers are slowly melting. Solutions such as the one being developed by Chewang Norphel represent only a short-term solution to the local, Ladakhi problem. His approaches, however, are more effective than those of the diplomats who failed to achieve much in Denmark.