Author – Goutham V
Indian farmers have been at the receiving end due to the uncertainties of nature. Global warming has wreaked havoc causing unseasonal rains and hailstorms in many parts of the country. Even the remote and high-altitude region such as Ladakh has not escaped this adversity. It receives an annual average rainfall of 50mm. Hence, water is a rare commodity there.
An idea germinated in the mind of a civil engineer belonging to the region turned this adversity into opportunity. Constructing dams and reservoirs in such a remote region involves heavy capital investment and environmental costs. Chewang Norphel built an ‘artificial glacier’ by utilizing the unseasonal melting of natural glaciers and preserved water, which addressed scarcity and saved crops.
Ladakh is located on the western edge of the picturesque yet remote Tibetan plateau. Farmers in Ladakh grow crops on water from melted glaciers from the mountains. Since it is a cold desert, the average annual rainfall is scanty. Generally, these glaciers melt during April and May. However, due to climatic changes, they have started melting in June. This has put crops in peril as the sowing season starts in April and May. Melting of glaciers in June has disturbed the natural crop cycle. Since there is no water available for cultivation during April-May, 80% of the farmers faced losses.
Seed for the project
Chewang Norphel wanted to end Ladakhi farmers’ plight. He had served in the government for over 36 years as a civil engineer. He found a solution to the problem by devising the technique of artificially freezing the melted glacier water called the “Artificial Glacier”. The idea of artificial glaciers struck his mind when he saw a small stream of water freezing under the shade of a poplar tree, as water kept flowing in the sunshine. The main reason for this phenomenon to occur, he observed, was the water that flowed through the shady area was moving slowly, whereas it was not that slow in the sunny part. This made him realize that if the flow of water is decreased in a shady area, it would freeze.
Norphel prepared his ‘Pilot Project – Artificial Glaciers’. He put to use all his field experience, civil engineering knowledge, and passion for work into it. He, along with his team, started working during winter (October to December). They first diverted water from the main stream to neighboring valleys, where small catchment areas were already prepared. These small currents of water were provided with ice-retaining walls. They were carefully penned in with rocks. To slow down the flow of water, diversion canals were often planned (mapped) in such a way that they took long meandering routes around mountain sides.
When water flowed through these routes reached the catchment area, which was generally a shady place, it froze and a thin layer of ice was formed on its surface. Again, water was allowed to fall into the catchment from the main river stream through the specified route. This was repeated till the layer of ice was thick enough. Care was taken to not allow too much of water into it as it might result in a slushy pit. This thick layer of ice is called ‘Artificial Glacier’.
“The main technique used to create an artificial glacier is to control the velocity of water as much as possible. This region is hilly and that is why the gradient of streams is very steep. As a result, water usually does not freeze in the main stream. So, what we have done is we have diverted the water to a shadow area by constructing a diversion channel with a mild gradient. When it reaches the site, the water is released down the hill, distributing it in a small quantity so that the velocity can be minimized, and side by side we have constructed ice retaining walls in series to store the frozen water. This is the methodology used to form an artificial glacier,” Norphel said.
The cost of constructing an artificial glacier was about INR90,000 for the first project. When compared with a conventional cement reservoir, the biggest artificial glacier (1,000 ft long and 150 ft wide, with an average depth of 4 ft, situated near the village of Phuktsey) costs around $2,000. It now provides water for the village of 700 people. A cement concrete reservoir of similar capacity typically costs $34,000.
Located at a lower altitude (13,000 ft) than natural glaciers (18,000 ft), artificial glaciers melt much early than natural ones i.e, in April. So, people now have sufficient water at the right time for their crops. Thus, the purpose of Norphel’s Artificial Glaciers Project was served by providing people with sufficient amount of water at the right time.
“If he is able to actually store that much water as ice and release it later by natural processes, it’s a low-cost alternative to dams,” said William Cooper, the director of the Urban Water Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. In 2012, award-winning documentary filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava directed a short film on Norphel’s life. Titled ‘White Knight’, the film was screened in many festivals in India and abroad. Norphel is called the “Ice Man of India”.
Norphel calculated that a natural glacier containing about 1 million cubic feet (about 7.5 million gallons) of water could be used to create an artificial glacier capable of irrigating about 380 acres of land.
Cooper claims the amount of water stored in an artificial glacier is tiny as compared to the flow rate of the Indus River, where most of the glacial melt ultimately ends up dumping in the Arabian Sea. We can also see that these artificial glaciers have no downstream effect as most of the water is utilized to grow crops. Water would flow unused out to the Arabian Sea during October and November.