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The 'glacier man' of India

Nov 27, 2009

As climate change poses grave threat to glaciers around the world, Chewang Norphel, in India's Ladakh region, has devised a way to create artificial glaciers. Harvesting glacial meltwater as a conservation technique for irrigational needs can go a long way in man’s fight against global warming.

Ladakh: His is a classic case of a man’s fight against nature in this trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, as he battles climate change.

In this region that seldom sees rains, the glaciers – for ages the fountainheads of water for this arid region – are receding at a rapid rate. Farmers find it difficult to grow crops in their agricultural lands, with water in extremely short supply when it is most needed to irrigate the fields.

But 74-year-old Chewang Norphel, a former government civil engineer, has devised a way to deal with this challenge. No, he does not have the power to stop the melting of glaciers, but he has pioneered a solution by creating artificial glaciers, yes glaciers, which help farmers to stave off irrigational crises right at the onset of crop growing.

Christian Science Monitor

Photo essay/ Courtesy: Christian Science Monitor

In an interview, Norphel talks about his novel concept, his struggles and hopes as he pursues his pioneering endeavor that has earned him the moniker ‘Glacier Man’.

IPS: Your idea of creating artificial glaciers is slowly gaining wide acceptance. Tell us about this whole concept.

Chewang Norphel: The creation of artificial glaciers is a high-altitude water conservation technique in the wake of climate change. The glaciers are receding rapidly and winters are getting shorter and warmer. Therefore, whatever little snowfall is received melts away quickly. The snow and glacier meltwater drains into the river without any use (to the farmers) for the most part of the year, and farmers are unable to find any water when it is needed during the snowing season.

So, construction of artificial glaciers is a means for harvesting glacial meltwater for the irrigational needs of farmers. Natural glaciers are way up in the mountains, and they melt slowly in summer and thereby reach the villages in June whereas artificial glacier starts melting in spring, right when the first irrigation requirement called ‘Thachus’ which means ‘germinating water’ is most needed.

IPS: How do you create artificial glaciers?

CN: Artificial glaciers are a simple water-harvesting technique suited for high-altitude cold deserts that are totally dependent on glaciers. Glacier melt at different altitudes is diverted to the shaded side of the hill, facing the north, where the winter sun is blocked by a ridge or a mountain slope. At the start of winter (November), the diverted water is made to flow onto the sloping hill face through appropriately designed distribution channels or outlets.

At regular intervals stone embankments are built, which impede the flow of water, making shallow pools. In the distributing chambers, 1.5-inch diametre G pipes are installed after every five feet for proper distribution of water.

Water flows in small quantities and at low velocity through the G pipes, and freezes instantly. The process of ice formation continues for three to four winter months and a huge reserve of ice accumulates on the mountain slope, aptly termed ‘artificial glacier’.

IPS: How many farmers are benefiting from artificial glaciers?

CN: Since artificial glaciers are constructed close to a village, all the families in the village or hamlet are equally benefited. Eighty percent of the farmers of Leh [Ladakh’s capital] depend on glacier melt for irrigating their agricultural land, where they grow vegetables, barley and wheat.

So far, we have created eight glaciers adjacent to many villages, which means farmers of these villages are benefiting from artificial glaciers. Once this facility is extended to all the villages, all the farmers will be able to reap the benefits of artificial glaciers.

IPS: What are the other benefits of simulated glaciers?

CN: Apart from solving the irrigation problem, the artificial glaciers help in the recharging of groundwater and rejuvenation of springs. They enable farmers to harvest two crops in a year, help in developing pastures for cattle rearing and reducing water sharing disputes among the farmers. They also help build the confidence of farmers based in an arid region like Ladakh. Villagers can earn cash income while remaining as farmers.

IPS: How did the idea of creating artificial glaciers occur to you?

CN: You know, we in the cold regions leave the tap in our bathrooms half running during winter nights to keep water in the supply pipe from freezing. One fine morning, I realised that this water was getting frozen in our nearby garden. It struck me that small artificial glaciers could be formed in the same manner.

Since I had travelled to most of the places in the region as a government engineer until 1986, I was aware of its entire topography; I thought the shaded areas in the lower ranges could be utilised for this purpose. Thus emerged the first artificial glacier I created in Phuktse Phu village in 1987 by using this simple method.

IPS: How much does it cost to create an artificial glacier?

CN: It varies from site to site. Generally, it costs around Rs three to Rs 10 lakh Indian rupees (around five to six thousand US dollars).

IPS: What else is needed to build such a structure?

CN: Villagers are the main stakeholders, so their involvement is crucial to the sustainability of the project. A community contributes to the construction and maintenance of the glaciers, and that makes the project sustainable and beneficial over the long term.

IPS: Where do you get the funding for creating the glaciers?

CN: The funding for artificial glaciers near Stakmo village comes from the Indian Army under its operation Sadbhavna while that for other artificial glaciers has come to a limited extent from the government’s watershed development programmes.

Recently, the Science and Technology department also started giving funds towards the rehabilitation of damaged artificial glaciers. The funding is made to a non-government organisation, Leh Nutrition Project.

IPS: What are the challenges to building artificial glaciers?

CN: The availability of funds is a problem, because it takes a long while to arrange funds for the creation of artificial glaciers.

On the other hand, people’s interest (in helping build artificial glaciers) has begun to wane. They used to volunteer themselves for the creation of these collective resources, but not anymore. They are getting subsidised food grains from the government, which has made them a bit indolent. Road inaccessibility and high transportation costs of materials are the other main problems we face, since we have to work at a high altitude of 4,600 metres above sea level.

IPS: Can your artificial glacier model be replicated elsewhere?

CN: As I said, the technique for creating artificial glaciers is easy and simple and can be replicated in similar geo-climatic regions as Ladakh, such as Spiti in Hamachal Pradesh-India and some central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This technology can be replicated in areas which have the following features like a 4,666 to 5,333-metre altitude; temperature as low as -15 to -20 degree Celsius during peak winters; and longer winter periods of four to five months to ensure longer expansion and formation of glaciers.

IPS: World leaders are assembling in Copenhagen in December for a climate change summit. As someone who has been helping address this issue on the adaptation front, what is your message to them?

CN: My humble suggestion to the people of the regions that have already been hit by climate change or will be in the future would be that they should act and make things happen. To the world leaders, my humble request to them is they work hard to evolve an agreement that will safeguard the future and interests of the people of the entire planet.

Source : IPS
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