Union territory of Ladakh is a cold desert hence Agricultural activities are not practiced here during winters due to low air temperature and frozen soil. However, crops like wheat, barley and trees like that of apricots flourish here during spring season. Therefore, water requirement is increased during the sowing season and with average rainfall of 50 millimeters the agriculture here is mainly dependent on snow and glacier meltwater. But due to the climate change in recent years, the temperature increases in the spring season which results in the early meltdown of glaciers and streams dry up faster. This obviously impacts the agricultural practices and food supplies in the region.
A number of people started migrating away from the area, leaving their agricultural properties in order to earn a livelihood that the region didn’t offer due to scarcity of water. According to various surveys and officials, the scarcity of water is the major cause due to which the residents are moving away. People were bound to leave their traditional agricultural activities and go to other parts to work as laborers. There are some villages in the region that were left with only 1-2 households due to climate change resulting in water shortage.
To tackle this problem, Sonam Wangchuk, came up with the idea of an Ice Stupa. Talking about how he came up with it.
Wangchuk says that once in the month of May, he noticed some ice deposited under a bridge. He realized that even in the peak of summer the ice didn’t melt away because it wasn’t under the direct sunlight. That’s how he came up with an idea that ice could be kept longer in the region if it is shaded from the sun. Then he thought of storing water in the shape of conical pillars of ice as that offers the minimum surface area while holding high volume of water. The conical pillars could easily be prevented from the sunlight.
Therefore, Ice Stupa is basically an artificial glacier in a conical ‘pillar’ like shape that was invented to conserve water. The winter water which otherwise goes unused can be used to make these artificial glaciers or pillars.
The first prototype of an Ice Stupa was built by Sonam Wangchuk in 2013 of 6 meters of height by freezing around 40,000 US gal water in Leh. Later the project began in 2014 under the name ‘The Ice Stupa Project’ by Wangchuk and his NGO Students’ Educational and Cultural Movements of Ladakh for the conservation of water for agriculture. In 2019, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, recognized the efforts made by the NGO to deal with a serious issue of water scarcity in the region. The ministry, therefore, decided to financially support the project.
With joint efforts of the ministry and SECMOL, 26 villages of Ladakh experimented with the Ice Stupa to conserve water in the winter of 2019-20. The experiment itself helped conserve around 60 million litres of water that was used in the months of April-May for plantations and agricultural purposes. Under this project, locals were trained and 26 stupas were built with community involvement. This began in 2019 from the Kulum village, 5km south-east of Leh. The work started in November 2019 and over 4 months, till February 2020, a 45 foot tall Ice Stupa was built in the village. The pillar conserved 3 lakh litres of water that helped in irrigation. The structure melted away in April but provided much needed water for the fields of Kulum.
Encouraged by the results, the ministry of tribal affairs is looking forward to the winter of 2021-22 to expand the project to 24 more villages. In November 2016, Sonam Wangchuk won the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise for his idea of an Ice Stupa.
Written by: Utkarsha Tyagi
About the Author: Passionate about environment issues, Utkarsha Tyagi has worked as a columnist with the leading publications such as Hindustan Times.