Artificial Glaciers Provide Water to Farmers

By Eliot Levine, WWF-US

In India, the ancient kingdom of Ladakh, between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, is the highest inhabited region on Earth.

It is also one of the driest, and received no more water a year than the Sahara Desert. But despite this, more than 275 000 people are living in Ladakh, most of them farmers and their families. Due to the weakness of infrastructures in this area, all of them are totally dependents on glaciers and snowmelt to irrigate crops and so to survive. Changes in the regions climate, such as decreasing amounts of precipitation and increasingly warmer winters, has resulted in a severe decrease in the number and size of many of the glaciers. The ones that remain are at higher altitudes, too far from villages, and don’t produce significant melt water to irrigate the population's crops. Consequently, the inhabitants only have 2 solutions to survive: one is to migrate to megacities, and the other one is to adapt to these new changes in climate. A retired civil engineer, Chewang Norphel, has decided to develop an innovative community-based solution. "Water is the most important thing we have. Without water, we have no food; no life" he says. His solution is both innovative and relatively simple- create an artificial glacier.

Retaining walls are built to contain the frozen water.

Retaining walls are built to contain the frozen water.

How does it work? Norphel built stone walls, in the slopes, above the village.  It diverts the runoff from winter precipitation into an area that is shaded from the sun, and a series of embankments slowed the freezing water for long enough so that it could build up into the artificial glacier. Now, during winter, this glacier stores water which remains available in the drier sowing season to irrigate the farmers’ crops. The results have been very hopeful. Previously barren fields have turned green by the stored water from the artificial glacier. "We have so much [wheat] yield now that we are even selling some," says Tashi Angmo, who lives in Stakmo. "People who moved away are starting to return to the village because there is hope now. However, while hopeful, technology, like that developed by Mr. Norphel, often only provides a temporary respite.  As the region’s climate continues to change in the coming years, even artificial glaciers won’t be enough to counter the growing dryness of the area. However, “buying time” approaches such as these are absolutely necessary in helping community’s safe guard themselves from climate related stresses such as disappearing glaciers and high altitude snowpack.