Ladakh’s Artificial Glaciers, Ice Stupas, and Other Attempts to Survive a Warming Planet

By Sierra Gladfelter and Eben Yonnetti

This photo essay was originally composed for the University of Colorado Boulder Tibet Himalaya Initiative’s website.

A land of glaciated peaks and windswept valleys situated in the Himalayas’ vast rain shadow, Ladakh has long been home to a hearty people who devised complex systems of irrigation and agriculture to survive and even thrive in this high-desert landscape. Located on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, this region of only several hundred thousand people was once a crossroads of cultures and regional trade hub. After it was absorbed into the Republic of India in 1947 and its borders with Pakistan and Tibet were closed, however, Ladakh became little more than a strategic defense area for the rest of India. Its place on the periphery only changed after Ladakh was opened to tourism in 1974 and later idolized in the 2009 Bollywood blockbuster Three Idiots. Now, with hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, unprecedented rates of rural to urban migration, and the Indian military continuing to expand its border presence, Ladakh has struggled to deal with the growing demands placed upon its natural resources.

In addition to social and political changes, climate change has transformed Ladakh into a landscape in environmental crisis. In just the last six decades, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir of which Ladakh is a large part, has lost 20% of its permanent ice reserves (Clouse et al., 2017). Considering that 85 to 90% of Ladakhi villages depend completely on glacier and snow-fed catchments for their water and that annual average rainfall is less than two inches (Norphel & Tashi, 2014), rising temperatures and dwindling snowfall do not bode well for the region’s future water needs. Moreover, what precipitation does occur is increasingly received in the destructive form of short and intense cloudbursts that the landscape cannot absorb (Dorjai & Mordelet, 2012).

In response to these intense environmental and social changes various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and even religious groups are mobilizing local peoples to build a more climate resilient Ladakh. Rather than mitigating scarcity through efforts to reduce use, however, many interventions attempt to capture Ladakh’s shrinking water resources before they are ‘lost’ downstream through the construction of various water harvesting technologies like ‘artificial glaciers.’ These structures are essentially human-made ice banks designed to collect and store water in the winter for spring and summer agriculture, and in some cases, are even used to irrigate and ‘green’ the desert.

Although ice reservoirs were built traditionally using various techniques in the Ladakh-Baltistan region, their contemporary form as ‘artificial glaciers’(AGs) was pioneered by civil engineer Chewang Norphel in the late 1980s. Norphel’s AGs are built as a series of terraced ice fields in or along a stream channel. One method involves diverting a portion of a stream to a shaded bank where it is forced through a series of check dams that slow its flow and increase surface area to expedite freezing. In another, the dams are built directly in the streambed to achieve similar results. First built by Ladakh’s Rural Development Department and the Leh Nutrition Project in a handful of water scarce villages, AGs are now receiving interest and investment especially among corporate donors. In 2017, for example, the Tata Trusts (which have already built five AGs around Leh) began assessing the feasibility of constructing AGs in 34 potential villages.

Inspired by Norphel’s work, Ladakhi engineer and social reformer Sonam Wangchuk invented another type of ice reservoir he dubbed the “Ice Stupa.” The name comes from its conical shape, which resembles a traditional Buddhist stupa or reliquary mound, and allegedly can be built at lower elevations since it melts slower than terraced AGs due to its shape and smaller surface area. After constructing a prototype in the winter of 2013/2014, Wangchuk’s work was recognized by the Tibetan Buddhist leader, His Holiness Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, who offered funds, labor, and land near Phyang Monastery to support a scaled-up version. The next year, Wangchuk and his team constructed a larger Ice Stupa near the village of Phyang to irrigate a plantation of 5,000 trees planted by Chetsang Rinpoche’s environmental organization, Go Green, Go Organic. In the years since, the Ice Stupa Project has continued to experiment with different materials and construction techniques to improve their technology so that it can become applicable and affordable for villages on a large scale.

Most recently, with direction from Chetsang Rinpoche, two monks from Lamayuru Monastery have also started to work with villages in Ladakh’s Sham Valley to experiment with low-tech ice reservoirs. Compared to Norphel’s AGs and Wangchuk’s Ice Stupa, these small-scale “artificial icefall glaciers” are less expensive and technical, involving little more than a pipe laid out between a spring and a shaded cliff face. The water conveyed is sprayed onto the rock wall below to form a frozen waterfall. First built in the village of Kuksho in the winter of 2016/2017, the project has since expanded into two nearby villages.

While much of the world is looking to Ladakh and its AGs for inspiration, it seems that a more critical look at these interventions is warranted. Maintenance, for example, has been a challenge since Norphel built his first AG. With little budget for follow-up visits or maintenance, most AGs are essentially abandoned after construction for local villagers to maintain. However, many of these structures are built far above villages and as external interventions have eroded collective-labor practices, repairs initiated by locals are rare. This might explain why more than half of Norphel’s earliest AGs have either gone completely or partially defunct (Clouse et al., 2017). The monks initiating the artificial icefall glaciers have been able to partially avoid these challenges by capitalizing on villagers’ devotion to Chetsang Rinpoche to recruit volunteers to monitor and maintain these structures. Nevertheless, the demands that religious leaders can make of their followers’ time and labor have a limit. Even devotion can only be stretched so far.

Most importantly, Ladakh’s ice reservoirs, in any form, are not a solution to climate change or scarcity in the long-term as they only preserve, for a few months, water that is already present in the mountains. No matter how high-tech AGs become, they can do little if Ladakh’s natural glaciers continue to disappear and the skies refuse to snow. Humility, however, is often lacking in interventions. The Ice Stupa Project, for example, invites visitors on its website to “join Ladakh as it gears up to fight climate change and melting glaciers.” The reality, however, is that AGs are not a weapon to combat climate change, but are rather a way for Ladakhis to cope with its most immediate effects and to try to hold on, at least for now, to life in this landscape.

This photo-essay captures the dreams and realities surrounding AGs in Ladakh. Informed by three months of preliminary research in Ladakh, it presents some visual evidence to accompany the authors’ reflections while on Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grants in India.

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The majority of Ladakh’s population live in irrigated valleys that are fertile and verdant compared to the dry, rocky mountains and desert that surround them. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Glacier and snow-fed springs and streams provide both irrigation and fertile grazing patches for the region’s herds of yak, goats, and sheep. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Recently, local religious leaders have started to take an active role in environmental projects in response to climate change. One of the most prominent, His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, has been especially active in promoting tree plantations through his local NGO Go Green, Go Organic. Photo by Eben Yonnetti.
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An example of a recent tree plantation organized by Go Green, Go Organic. This project in the village of Phobrang began in 2015 with volunteers from numerous villages planting 5,000 trees, mostly willows, in an attempt to ‘green’ the desert. In subsequent years, Phobrang’s villagers have added more than 15,000 trees to this plantation. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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The Tata Trusts have become one of the largest funders of ‘artificial glaciers’ in Ladakh, financing the construction of seven such structures since 2013 through local NGO partners. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Villagers in Nang must manage flows in their irrigation canals throughout the year. An artificial glacier built by the Leh Nurtition Project directly in the stream channel is visible in the background. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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This close-up of one of Nang’s artificial glaciers reveals the outlets in each check dam for the stream to flow through in summer months. In theory, villagers are supposed to close these outlets with stones in the fall so that in the winter water will be slowed and forced to spread behind the check dams, leading to ice accumulation. When the authors visited this site at the end of December, however, little ice had formed. This style of Norphel’s artificial glaciers is the least technical and expensive, easiest for villagers to maintain, but is also most prone to damage due to fluctuating discharge and flash floods. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 This photo shows the storage tank and diversion canal for the second type of artificial glacier designed by Norphel. In the fall and winter, villagers must open and maintain a gated inlet and canal that diverts stream water into a system of terraced walls that help to accumulate ice. In the spring, villagers are supposed to close off the inlet to prevent damage due to higher discharge volumes and sediment loads. Photo by Eben Yonnetti.
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One in a series of terraced dry stone masonry walls used at the Likir artificial glacier to collect ice. This artificial glacier was constructed in 2017 by local villagers and the Ladakh Environment and Health Organization, with funding from the Tata Trusts. Photo by Eben Yonnetti.
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A view from over the first rock wall dam looking at the terraced ice fields above the village of Likir. Photo by Eben Yonnetti.
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 One of the authors, Sierra Gladfelter, taking notes at the Likir artificial glacier during a follow-up site visit by Ladakh Environment and Health Organization staff members and villagers to check on ice accumulation. Photo by Eben Yonnetti.
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An overview photo of the diversion-style artificial glacier above the village of Alchi in Ladakh’s Sham region. This structure was built in 2017 by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group and local villagers with financing from the Tata Trusts. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Gabion encased rock walls at the Alchi artificial glacier. Most artificial glaciers have been constructed using dry stone masonry technology common in villages, but more recent projects have incorporated gabion and concrete to reinforce walls. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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One of the greatest challenges that diversion-style artificial glaciers face is the almost daily maintenance required to keep water flowing through the diversion canal without freezing and on top of previously accumulated ice. This photo illustrates efforts to prevent water from tunneling under the ice field by using local vegetation, soil, rocks, and simple tools to channel its flow over the surface instead. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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As artificial glaciers are becoming more popular, there has been a surge in interest and investment in this technology. The Tata Trusts, for example, are currently expanding their efforts in Ladakh through three local NGO partners. Here, staff from the Tata Trusts and the Ladakh Environment and Health Organization meet with residents of Ganglas—one of 34 targeted communities—to assess the feasibility of artificial glaciers above their village. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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In addition to focus groups with residents, the Tata Trusts’ recent feasibility studies include site visits with villagers and engineers to assess potential locations and estimate project costs. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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A view of the Ice Stupa on December 19th, 2017. The Ice Stupa is located slightly west of Phyang village, above the tree plantation that it is intended to irrigate. Immediately below the Ice Stupa is a large catchment pond, or dzing, that captures melt water from the Ice Stupa until it is diverted to the trees. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 The first stage in constructing the Ice Stupa is to build a frame which can support the initial structure until ice accumulation enables it to support its own weight. Moreover, this hollow core enables access critical for adding sections of pipe as the Ice Stupa grows. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Here author, Eben Yonnetti, assists in filling gaps with local seabuckthorn bushes as the Ice Stupa takes shapes. This thorny material is ideal for forming ice as water coats it. Other materials that the Ice Stupa Project team has experimented with to increase surface area of the base structure include plastic netting, fishing net, barbed wire, and razor wire. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 A view of the Ice Stupa on December 29th, 2017. While the Ice Stupa team normally only allows water to flow through the system after sunset to promote optimal ice growth, here they have left the pipes open in the morning as they work to thaw a frozen pipe. In systems like the Ice Stupa that use plastic pipes to channel water from a source to a project location, frozen pipes have proven to be one of the greatest challenges. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 Besides their initial location in the desert next to Phyang, in 2017 the Ice Stupa team expanded their project to a second site above the village in the stream channel itself. By placing the structure here, this Ice Stupa can store winter water and bolster early spring flows in the main stream that the villages of Phyang and Phey rely upon for their irrigation systems. The hollow plastic frame allows access for maintenance as well as curious visitors. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 A close-up of the Ice Stupa above Phyang. Recently, controversy arose when the downstream villagers of Phey accused the Ice Stupa Project of funneling water from the stream even during the summer months when agricultural water demands peak. A solution was reached after both the courts and Chetsang Rinpoche intervened, with the Ice Stupa Project agreeing to only build one structure at the lower site and stop diverting stream water when the agricultural season begins in March. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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A map posted at the Ice Stupa Project’s base in Phyang that envisions what the landscape might look like with the development of dozens or even hundreds of Ice Stupas. This vision includes the expansion of agriculture and tree plantations into current desert land, growing the local industrial and tourism sectors, as well as the construction of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (another of Sonam Wangchuk’s recent initiatives). Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Volunteers from the village of Henisku hike up to check on the status of their artificial icefall glacier. Selected by a monk for this service, villagers have to make this 1.5 hour/one-way trip several times each week to monitor ice accumulation and manage any problems. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Author Eben Yonnetti looks down upon the Henisku artificial icefall glacier while visiting the site with local volunteers on December 31st, 2017. Upon arrival, the group discovered that water was not flowing out of the pipe. Unable to locate the blockage as most of the several hundred-foot pipe is buried underground. The next day, the villagers returned with tools to try to identify and fix the problem, a laborious process that will likely be repeated several times each winter. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 This artificial icefall glacier was built for the first time this year above Atitse Monastery. Although Atitse is largely abandoned during the winter, fields there are actively used by six families staying in Lamayuru. Furthermore, the artificial icefall glacier also serves residents of Lamayuru who depend on the same stream for irrigation. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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 The artificial icefall glacier at Kuksho. The site for this project was chosen in 2016 by Chetsang Rinpoche in consultation with monks from Lamayuru Monastery and villagers. The shaded slopes along this steep ravine receive little sunlight in December and January, making it an ideal location for ice formation. Almost 300 feet tall, this structure depends on water that is piped approximately one mile from a mountain spring from late October until March when temperatures are cool enough to freeze the water. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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A close-up of the top of Kuksho’s artificial icefall glacier. The flexible nature of the structure’s plastic pipe enables the position of the water outlet, here visible in the upper right, to be changed every 10 to 15 days to promote greater coverage of the cliff by one of the villagers in charge of monitoring the site. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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A view of the artificial icefall glacier from above. To the far left it is possible to see the stream that it drains into and the village of Kuksho that is served by this project. This same stream flows through two additional villages before it eventually enters the Indus River. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter.
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Photo of the two authors standing near the ancient castle ruins and temples in Basgo, Ladakh’s former capital. Photo by Cynthia Ross.

References

Clouse, C., Anderson, N., & Shippling, T. (2017). Ladakh’s artificial glaciers: climate-adaptive design for water scarcity. Climate and Development, 9 (5): 428-438.

Dorjai (Gya), S. & Mordelet, C. (Directors). (2012). Jungwa, the Broken Balance. France: Latosensu Productions.

Norphel, C. & Tashi, P. (2014). Snow Water Harvesting in the Cold Desert in Ladakh: An Introduction to Artificial Glacier. In Mountain Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction. Nibanupudi, H.K. & Shaw, R. (Eds.), pp. 199–210. Tokyo: Springer Japan.

Please note: While the content above was generated through research funded by the Fulbright Nehru Student Research Grant program, the views expressed are entirely those of its authors and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

 

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