'Ice Man' tackles Himalayan water shortage
Retired engineer Chewang Norphel, 77, is building his own glaciers in an effort to save farmers from a dry spring.
Published Monday, February 6, 2012 1:23PM EST
LADAKH, India — High in the Himalayas, Chewang Norphel cut a path through the uncharted snow in his dress shoes. Each step sank and his ankles were swallowed yet the 77-year old appeared neither cold nor encumbered.
"I grew up in the mountains," said Norphel with a comfortable smile to his shivering visitors, "they call me the Ice Man."
That last part is actually true for reasons other than provenance. Norphel earned the "Ice Man" name for pioneering a solution against a stark change in climate here that has caused glaciers to retreat and farmers to despair.
The idea is not to save the mountain's glaciers: Instead, Norphel is building his own. The "artificial glaciers" he creates are pools or flooded valleys that freeze during winter to save fields from the crisis of a dry spring.
With global warming, the glaciers above Ladakh have retreated even higher -- as much as 10 kilometrws, according to scientists -- meaning the spring glacial melt has a greater distance to travel. For farmers, that natural flow arrives too late. They get only one annual crop of wheat, barley or peas and it has to be sown by March or April to be harvested by winter.
"Our mainstay is agriculture," said the retired civil engineer, "without water the farmer can't do anything."
Water is at a premium as rainfall delivers scarcely more than five centimetres a year and the summers are hot and dusty. Considered a "cold desert" between Pakistan and China, the terrain is rugged and barren, and barely populated by Buddhist farmers who long invested in prayer to bring them water.
"In the beginning people they say I am crazy and artificial glaciers (was) not possible," said Norphel, "so I told them let us see."
What they saw with the first artificial glacier was a successful crop. Then another. Soon, Norphel was refining his blueprints for other villages. He has since built ten glaciers ranging in size and cost up to $20,000 for the latest project in a remote village called Nang.
To get there we drove along the brittle mountain plain, past monasteries and army bases until the road narrowed and climbed and swerved with several dizzying switchbacks. Occasionally the tires of our hired ride struggled on the iced broken pavement that eventually gave way to a dirt track then a muddy plateau. At the gate of a livestock pen the road simply ended.
The rest of the trek was done on foot and lead to a gentle slope near the shaded side of an ice-choked gulley. It was his glacier. From there Norphel explained the landscape and how it had been adapted to create it.
A distilled version goes like this: The glacial runoff generated naturally through the year would typically go to waste if farmers did not use it. Norphel first realized this when he saw a pipe gushing water in the middle of winter. His technique 'harvests' that otherwise-wasted water from a natural stream and diverts it through pipes to a channel. The one he showed us is a kilometre long and follows the curve of a hill face.
The channel then empties to a gulley divided by stone embankments about four metres high. It does not get much sunlight and that is part of the strategy. By November all of the harvested water begins to freeze. When we visited at the end of January the ice was two metres thick in spots and Norphel expected it would soon cover the walls.
When the ice begins to melt in March it will flow naturally through the stone barriers (no cement was used) that act as brakes and filters. At the "exit end" of the gulley the water is channeled to reunite with the village's natural stream where it is readily accessible to those who need it.
"Simple and cheap," said the diminutive Norphel of the project, adding he would gladly teach his methods to anyone.
It is not just fresh water supplies to Ladakh and India at stake. The glacial melt provides seasonal flows to rivers across Asia -- including the Indus and the Yangtze – to a region that makes up nearly half the world's population.
"All of Asia needs the fresh water from these glaciers," said A.L. Ramanathan, a glaciologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, "It is true that glaciers are naturally prone to change but change over centuries, not decades."
(To judge the effects of global warming, check out the remarkable ‘then' and ‘now' photographs of Himalayan glaciers by David Breashears at www.glacierworks.org and follow on Twitter at @glacierworks)
At over 3,500 metres above sea level, Ladakh has had a sobering frontline view of global warming's impact. The thin and shifting snow line exposed large swaths of dirt and rendered the landscape irreversibly altered.
When the area was opened to tourism for the sake of the economy the water crisis worsened. Hotels and guesthouses installed showers and flush toilets to cater to thousands of visitors. Solar energy panels are helping ease part of the resource burden but the shortage of water remains critical.
Artificial glaciers cannot remedy the wider impact of global warming on Asia. Norphel is considered a local saviour though government funding for artificial glaciers is fleeting.
"I'm 77 years old," said Norphel, "I've seen in my own life this changing of climate."
What about the people who claim global warming is a "hoax"?
The Ice Man smiled, "They are the ones who are crazy."