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Artificial glaciers for summer irrigation

Norphel, a retired government engineer, has developed a technique for creating 'artificial glaciers' (Athar Parvaiz)
Norphel, a retired government engineer, has developed a technique for creating 'artificial glaciers'
Athar Parvaiz

The farmers of Ladakh, a particularly cold and arid region in northwest India, have been given new hope of much-needed irrigation water through the inspiration of a retired government engineer. He has developed a technique for creating what he calls 'artificial glaciers': this frozen water helps farmers to avoid the summer shortage of irrigation water that is becoming an increasing problem in this trans-Himalayan region.

Substituting for retreating glaciers

Chewang Norphel, aged 74 and a native to Ladakh, has observed that natural glaciers are receding rapidly. In addition, with winters getting shorter and warmer, seasonal snowfall quickly melts, with the meltwater draining into rivers without farmers being able to store it for spring and summer irrigation.

According to Norphel, creating artificial glaciers is a simple water harvesting technique suited to high altitude cold deserts. During the winter, starting in November, naturally occurring glacier-melt is diverted to a shaded area of hillside, facing north, where the winter sun is blocked by a ridge or a mountain slope.

As Norphel explains, "At regular intervals stone embankments are built across the water channels, which impede the flow of water and create shallow pools. The water is made to flow slowly through 1.5 inch (4cm) pipes and freezes instantly. This process of ice formation continues for the three to four winter months, during which time a substantial reserve of ice accumulates on the mountain slope forming the aptly termed 'artificial glacier'."

Eighty percent of the farmers of Leh district depend on glacier-melt for irrigating their agricultural land, where they grow vegetables, barley and wheat. So far, Norphel has created eight artificial glaciers adjacent to as many villages.

More than irrigation

The process of ice formation takes three to four months (Athar Parvaiz)
The process of ice formation takes three to four months
Athar Parvaiz

As well as solving the irrigation problem, according to Norphel and other locals, the artificial glaciers, help in the recharging of ground water and rejuvenation of springs. "Artificial glaciers enable farmers to harvest two crops in a year," says Tashi Tunduk, a local farmer. "They help in developing pastures for cattle-rearing and they reduce water-sharing disputes between farmers."

How did this idea occur to Norphel? He smiles: "You know, we, people of cold regions leave the tap in our bathrooms half running during winter nights to avoid the water in the supply-pipe from the tank freezing. One morning, I realized that all this 'waste' water is getting frozen in our nearby garden. And I thought, maybe small artificial glaciers can be also formed in the same manner. Since I had travelled to most of the places in this area when I was a government engineer, I was aware of the topography of the entire region," recalls Norphel, "And I thought how the shaded areas in the lower ranges could be utilized for this purpose." So using this simple technique, he created the first artificial glacier in Phuktse Phu village in 1987.

Cost and benefits

The cost of an artificial glacier varies from site to site but generally it averages around 3-10 lac (hundred thousand) Indian rupees (around US$5-6,000). Villagers, most of whom are farmers, are the main beneficiaries and their involvement is crucial for the sustainability of any project, says Norphel. "The community contributes towards the construction and maintenance of the glacier and that makes the project sustainable and beneficial in the long term."

Leh farmers depend on glacier-melt for irrigating their vegetables, barley and wheat (Athar Parvaiz)
Leh farmers depend on glacier-melt for irrigating their vegetables, barley and wheat
Athar Parvaiz

The funding for artificial glaciers near Stakmo village is currently being met by the Indian Army under its operation Sadbhavna (goodwill) programme, while limited funding for other artificial glaciers has come from the government's Watershed Development Programmes.

Norphel says that inaccessibility by road and high transportation cost of material are the main problems being faced by him and his team, since they have to work at high altitude, some 4,600 meters above sea level." However, this venerable, retired, yet still active engineer, believes that his technique can be replicated in similar geo-climatic regions to Ladakh such as Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and in central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Written by: Athar Parvaiz

Date published: March 2010


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