Waterline is an ongoing series of stories exploring the intersection of water, climate and food, told through the eyes of the people impacted by these issues. It is funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Autumn colors burnish the willows and poplars in Ladakh, a remote valley sandwiched between the Greater Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Northern India. Farmers prepare for the harvest of wheat, potatoes and barley in fields flanked by snowy peaks and glaciers. In the summer and autumn, these melt and provide much-needed water for drinking and irrigation downstream.
But in the spring, when Ladakhi farmers sow their summer crops, many face an acute water shortage: the glaciers high above them are still frozen, and the region is a high-altitude desert that receives only about 11 centimeters of precipitation annually.
Up until a few years ago, this water scarcity — at dizzying altitudes between 3,000 and 6,120 meters, and with temperature extremes swinging all the way from -28 to 33 degrees Celsius — compelled many farmers to give up farming altogether.
“We used to face such acute water shortages in March and April in our village that we had to migrate to a neighboring village with better water supply,” says Kunzang Namgyal, resident of Kulum, a tiny village 50 km north of Leh (the capital of Ladakh). The settlement of 11 families, all dependent on agriculture and livestock rearing, used to be an oasis of green surrounded by craggy, arid mountains. But since 2010, water scarcity has turned it into a ghost village. “We wanted to keep our connection with the land of our ancestors alive,” he says. “But how?”
In 2013, Ladakhi educator and inventor Sonam Wangchuk came up with a surprising way to relieve this seasonal problem. He had noticed that ice stalagmites remained solid long after horizontal ice around them had melted. Was it possible that when frozen vertically, ice took longer to melt than when it lay flat on the ground? And could this be a viable way to store water to tide farmers over the spring drought?
Wangchuk began experimenting with building ice into pyramids in winter to see how long they took to melt. Because they looked similar to the conical Buddhist stupas — shrines that contain relics of holy men and women, or even sacred mantras, ubiquitous across the Ladakhi landscape — they came to be called ice stupas. Their recognizable shape would, Wangchuk surmised, blend seamlessly with their surroundings and make people identify with them more easily.
Cut to the campus of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), a school that Wangchuk founded in 1988 for students who failed their public board examinations in grade 10.
“We chose a spot with a southern exposure located at the lowest altitude (hence warmest) possible in the whole of Leh valley to develop our ice stupa prototype,” the engineer and passionate education reformer recounts. “If our model could succeed in these inhospitable, hot and shadeless conditions, it would work anywhere in Ladakh.”
Within a month, Wangchuk and his team built a seven-meter-high structure, without using any electricity and with minimal labor. They piped water from a height of over 60 meters uphill, calculating that it would rise like a fountain an equal distance up from the ground when piped downstream. Sub-zero winter temperatures would do the rest.
Reliving those initial experiments, he says, “We’d hoped the prototype would last till 1st May, but it did better than that!” It finally melted on May 18, giving him, and his cohort at Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL), a research and training facility he founded in 2017, proof of concept and the hope that this could partially remedy the annual spring drought plaguing farmers in Ladakh.
The farmers themselves were initially skeptical. “Of the 11 households in Kulum village, five felt that this ice stupa idea would not work,” Namgyal says. “No one had ever thought of storing water in ice before.”
At HIAL, where scientists research and develop technologies suited for higher altitudes, scientists worked for the next few years to make ice stupas more thermally efficient and easier to build. Two distinct designs emerged from these experiments. The first connects to a tank, which stores the ice melt and pipes it into fields. The second simply recharges the surrounding area as it melts. Both help to reduce the dry conditions that Ladakh experiences and make cultivation possible.