Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh

Ladakh, the name itself conjures up images of rugged mountains, the mighty Indus flowing through deep valleys, high mountain passes, secluded monasteries with prayer flags lining these high mountain passes. Little did I know that apart from this stark and awe inspiring beauty, Ladakh had so much more to offer as well. Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

My second trip to Ladakh in May 2014, had me visiting a local NGO in Leh. The aim of my two week sojourn was to understand the local Ladakhi culture and to study the eco friendly practices that the locals have employed to combat the hardships and vagaries of nature faced by them.

I worked with LEHO (Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation) an NGO based out of Leh, which closely works with local villagers to help solve their water shortage problems by offering them cheap and inexpensive solutions for water resource management.

Ladakh being a high altitude cold desert receives 360 days of uninterrupted sunshine with limited water supply and very little rainfall. Villagers living downstream of the Indus and its tributaries are the lucky recipients of fresh snowmelt and river water. However, it is tough work for villagers living at villages that are far away from the river. They have to spend long hours trekking uphill in the arduous terrain and limited oxygen to get some snowmelt water for their household and irrigational activities. Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

One such village was Umla, a three hour drive from Leh located in the Sham belt of the Ladakh district. Umla is a small village with a population of a mere 31 households. Their main source of employment is joining the Ladakh Scouts as soldiers or tilling their fields to grow barley and potatoes.


Farmers in Ladakh tending to their crop of Barley

The main crop grown in Ladakh is Barley, having its main sowing season commencing from April. The first harvest, locally called as “thachus” is in the month of April which needs extensive irrigation. Traditionally, farmers relied on glacial snow melt runoff to irrigate their fields, but with global warming and the glaciers retreating to higher altitudes, water availability turned from sparse to nil in the peak sowing season of April.


One of the many retreating glaciers in Ladakh

A brilliant and novel idea by a local civil engineer from Ladakh, Mr. Chewang Norphel, created a solution for this problem. It struck him that the water that melts from natural glaciers due to high temperatures in summer and goes to waste as it flows into the river can be stored in summer and autumn so that it can form a glacier in winter, then this artificial glacier would melt in spring and provide water to the villagers at the right time. And, as these glaciers are located at a lower altitude of 13,000 feet as compared to the original glaciers which are located at 18,000 feet, they start melting earlier than the mainstream ones and provide water to the villagers when they need it the most in April. Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

The idea is a simple one and requires a basic level of expertise to be implemented. A mountain stream in the mountain shadow area is located and is bunded off at regular intervals, so that water collects at each level, then channelised to a collection tank further downhill which is then directed into respective fields.


The bunds on the Artificial Glacier at Umla

Ever since I had read about Mr. Norphel’s ingenious method, I was very curious to go and see this project live in action. I had learnt that LEHO had built such a glacier at Umla and I was very eager to visit this marvel and study its impact on rural life at Umla.

We set off from Leh on a cold morning with the occasional sleet and regular gusts of strong icy wind. The scenic two hour drive across this rugged landscape was made possible thanks to the excellent roads built by our Border Roads Organisation. Your funny bone will be tickled with the road safety signs that range from a “be gentle on my curves” to an “I am curvaceous, be slow!”


Roads signs such as these will entertain you all through your drive

I reached Umla to be greeted with light snow fall and gusts of strong wind. My local guide told me that we would analyse the weather for another hour before deciding on whether to trek uphill or not. With my fingers and toes crossed, praying for the weather god’s to be on my side, we drove uphill till the spot where the road ended and the vast expanses of Ladakhi terrain lay in front of me.

The landscape around me was rugged, stark and intimidating. Numerous little chortens lined the terrain, while some yaks lazily grazed on what little they could forage in this harsh unforgiving environment.

The skies began to clear and my guide took the call that we could begin our ascent uphill to the artificial glacier. The climb was a tough one and we had to ascend up to an altitude of 14,000ft above msl. As we gained altitude, the landscape changed from fields cultivated with barley, to seabuckthorn plantations to some wild grass to finally nothing but the rugged dry mountains.

There were dozens of man made “nullhas” that were channelising snow melt water to feed the fields. The mighty prayer wheels were in a constant state of motion thanks to the energy provided by the flow of this water through these “nullhas”.


My ascent uphill to the artificial glacier. Notice the sparse vegetation and stark landscape

We crossed a large water collection tank, into which all the glacial melt water drained and was channelised into various fields. This winter being a particularly harsh one, had a lot lesser water collection than expected. We were trekking uphill in mid May and all we could see was trickles of water collecting in this tank. Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

High altitude and me are not the best of friend’s, and I needed the constant break with some hydration to get along uphill. I used this reason to savour in this distinct landscape and get to know my local village guide better.


Catching some breath as we trudge along uphill

The valley through which we were trudging uphill had faced severe damage during the devastating cloud burst of 2010 and LEHO had done a lot of work in restoring this village. I learnt about local village life in Ladakh. It was heartening to learn on how the women from this part of the country are a very educated and empowered lot and most of them go on to study much more than their male counterparts!

There is a sense of oneness with nature that you will see with all village folk, but here this oneness is accompanied with an awe and respect to the mighty Himalayas. They know that these mountains, along with being life givers and protectors can also unleash their wrath and rage and cause widespread devastation in a matter of seconds. It is truly humbling to see them respect and revere the elements in this craggy and precipitous landscape.

After about three hours of climbing uphill, we began to notice on how the mountain stream that was swiftly flowing besides us during our ascent had started to freeze along its edges and it wasn’t before long that we were walking on a stream of ice!

We finally reached out destination! After three hours of gasping and panting, the view was certainly breathtaking! I was standing on a river of ice at least 30 feet high! I could see the steps which collected the water at different layers and vast expanse of white that lay in front of me. Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.


On top of the Artificial glacier

The air was a biting cold at this altitude of 14,000 ft! I needed to take out my notepad and measuring scale to take some basic calculations which was proving to be a bone chilling activity! The rocks are painted with scales every 50 meters, from where we measured the drop in levels of ice periodically. This drop in levels of ice directly corresponds to the amount of water collected for irrigation downhill. I was finally here and I grasped the true marvel of this simple and inexpensive solution to water management! Mr. Norphel, you are truly a great man! Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

Once we were done noting down numbers and making necessary calculations, it was time to trek downhill. My fingers and toes were already numb and the beads of perspiration that were trickling down my shirt were not helping me in this cold sub zero temperature! The feeling of cold sweat on a hot body with cold winds beating down on you can not be explained but can only be felt. It was sure a feeling I did not want to live with for long! Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

Our descent downhill was a lot faster and easier apart from the occasional lose rocks that helped accelerate my descent! We retraced our footsteps down the frozen river, to the streams with ice along their edges, across the meditating prayer wheels and back to the fields to which this water finally fed into. We did stop by and wave out to Mr. Yak who was grazing on the abundant seabuckthorn that lined this landscape. Mr. Yak didn’t care too much for me and I could make out that he was rather perturbed with my excitement on seeing him!


Managing a smile after my five hour trek in sub zero temperatures, high altitude and cold winds

This trek uphill was a great experience, and it made me marvel and admire these hardy Ladakhi folk. Simple tasks such as getting daily water can be such an ordeal when you got to brave the elements and sub zero bone chilling cold.

I would like to sign off with this lovely quote on ingenuity, “ Ingenuity plus courage plus hard work, equals miracles”.

Mr Norphel and LEHO surely did make miracles happen at Umla! Ingenious & Indeginious: The Artificial Glaciers At Ladakh.

By,
Vandana Vijay
Founder, Offbeat Tracks

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