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Creating artificial glaciers

By Freny Manecksha

The melting of natural glaciers due to climate change is a matter of global concern. But in Ladakh, a technique to create artificial glaciers that are designed to melt has rejuvenated agriculture

Himalayan glacier
Mountains and glaciers atop Khardungla, the highest motorable pass in the world. Ladakhis say several small glaciers have virtually disappeared over the years

Sanjeev Singh owns a small eatery in Leh bazaar and is the fourth-generation member of a family from Punjab. His forefathers had come here to engage in the silk trade. Singh is very aware that the climate is changing. “Years ago, the winters were much colder and extremely dry,” he says. 

Kunzes Dolma, who is vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, agrees. This 57-year-old can recall when bukharis (heating stoves) were kept burning all day and even then the water would freeze. “The only vegetables we could grow were knolkhol, turnips and barley. Today we grow brinjals, capsicums, even melons -- all the produce that used to come from the plains,” she adds. 

This may look like a short-term benefit, but Ladakhis know that they have good reason to worry about the changes in the long term. Although climate change is still a very nascent science and there are some conflicting claims (like that of Dr V K Raina, retired deputy director-general of the Geological Survey of India), glaciologists say there is clear anecdotal and documentary evidence to show that the blanket of greenhouse gases that traps the earth’s heat along with the black carbon aerosols (short-lived pollutants like soot), have impacted the health of Himalayan glaciers. 

Recent studies from 466 glaciers of the Indian Himalayas indicate that there has been a 21% reduction in the glacierised area ---from 2,077 sq km in 1962 to 1,628 sq km in 2004. Smaller glaciers of less than 1 sq km have reduced in area by as much as 38% compared to 12% retreat of larger glaciers. (A V Kulkarni and I M Bahuguna, in Journal of Glaciology

Ladakh is a cold desert, and for its farmers – 80% of whom depend on glacial melt for irrigating the land -- this is a very ominous sign. In the long term, shrinking glaciers will mean smaller amounts of that precious commodity, water. Already, the shrinking of the Ganglas glacier atop Khardungla is undermining the Indian army’s irrigation project. 

There has also been a sharp decline in precipitation from November to March and a reduction in snowfall which has added to the water crisis. Nissa Khatoon of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, who has been conducting interviews on the impacts of climate change, points out how in the year 2000, the barley fields in Pandhras in Kargil district remained fallow because the snow melted too early and could not be used for sowing barley. 

One person who has been aware of these changes and for the need to tackle them with adaptive technologies is 74-year-old Chhewang Norphel. An engineer who used to work with the rural development department, he has been experimenting with creating ‘artificial’ glaciers for more than two decades, combining indigenous knowledge with scientific expertise. He currently works with the Leh Nutrition Project, a civil society organisation. 

Norphel explains that an ‘artificial’ glacier is essentially a high-altitude water harvesting and conservation technique which uses the common principle of converting water into ice. 

Norphel revived an old local technique which entails spreading the water so that it can freeze easily, by diverting the waters of a main stream towards the shady side of the mountain. An intricate network of water channels and dams then reduces the velocity of the water and this allows the ice to form. At each dip or slope in the terrain, retaining walls like a series of mini-dams are built which further check the velocity.   

Efforts are made to tap every drop of water, even the water flowing below the frozen ice, which can then add to the surface run-off that is being harvested. This artificial glacier begins to melt in April (as against June for the natural glaciers), and it supplies water for the barley crop just when it is most needed. 

Norphel’s first experiment was in Phuktse Phu in 1987. It provided water to four villages. Since then, the Leh Nutrition Project has built 10 such artificial glaciers each costing between Rs 3-10 lakh. The artificial glaciers are funded under the Indian government’s Watershed Development Programmes and also under the Indian army’s Sadbhavna project, which is  aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people in Jammu and Kashmir and the forward areas through the funding of  various development schemes. 

Before embarking on the construction of the artificial glacier, the main stakeholder -- the village community -- is consulted. Their active involvement determines where and how the waters of the headstream can be suitably diverted and other crucial elements like availability of land, timing of the melt and so on. 

The water harvesting project has its own challenges and constraints. One is the high cost of setting it up. It is also difficult to find the required labour for maintenance and, because of the terrain and the high altitude, the cost of transporting the materials is high. 

But the benefits are many. At Stakna village near Leh where there is one such artificial glacier built under the aegis of the Sadbhavna project, the melting water has enabled Tashi Tundup, who owns several small holdings, to get an increased wheat crop. “The summer season is now extended since we get water from April and this has enabled us to grow additional crops like potatoes and green peas,” he says. 

The increased confidence in agriculture as a sustainable livelihood can help check emigration. In addition, there are environmental benefits like groundwater recharge and soil moisture conservation. 

Most importantly, as 92-year-old Phuntsog Namgyal of Stakna points out, it is these adaptations that will help the Ladakhis survive in an inhospitable terrain which will see severe repercussions from climate change. 

(Freny Manecksha is a freelance writer based in Mumbai)  

Infochange News & Features, November 2009