Creating glaciers out of thin air

Chewang Norphel has an ingenious solution to the droughts in his Himalayan homeland

At times, the moonscape land of Ladakh can appear as dry as a desert. In this most northerly part of India, tucked high in the Himalayas, there is virtually no rainfall and almost 75 per cent of the local farmers rely on meltwater from the glaciers to irrigate their once-a-year crops.

It was in Ladakh, confronted by receding glaciers – currently at the centre of an increasingly bitter dispute between scientists and Delhi – that Chewang Norphel, a government engineer, hit upon an idea to use nature to give the locals a helping hand with growing more food.

Seeing how much fresh water was wasted during the winter – as villagers left their taps running to prevent them freezing solid – and noticing the way that they stored snow on shaded areas of the mountain, he decided to create his own artificial glaciers.

That was more than a decade ago. Now, with funding from the Indian army – which is keen to maintain the support of local people in a strategically sensitive area close to the border with China – Mr Norphel has created 10 artificial glaciers and is planning more.

Crucially he has constructed them at lower elevations than the naturally occurring glaciers so that they melt at least a month earlier, providing the farmers with an opportunity to produce a second harvest of wheat, barley, peas and potatoes.

Such has been his success that to local people and environmentalists, he is known simply as Mr Glacier.

"I am a civil engineer by training and I was working in rural development. I had to visit every village and I noticed that all their problems were related to water," Mr Norphel said. "I thought about how to solve the problem. There was a pipe near my house that provided water for a village. During the winter we had to keep it open to stop it freezing. I thought that if we could hold that water it would all turn into ice."

The engineer set about building a system of pipes with holes in them that diverted water to a shaded part of the hillside and slowly reduced the volume as the water froze to ice. Over the years he has fine-tuned the design of the glaciers and their location on the hillsides.

Natural glaciers, he explained, begin to melt in June or July but by locating his artificial constructions 4,000ft lower down the valley, he is able to ensure they melt in May, which is typically when farmers finish sowing their crops.

Last year his teams built three glaciers for Stamko, one of many villages that have suffered from a drastic lack of water for farming. "There are a total of 113 rural villages in Ladakh and 80 of them depend on the glaciers for irrigation," he said.

The magical but fragile eco-system of Ladakh and its traditional inhabitants are threatened most directly by the ironic combination of droughts and floods. Mr Norphel, 74, is certain of several things: that the glaciers are retreating more quickly than before; that the region receives less snowfall and moisture than it did when he was younger; and that the region is progressively getting warmer. The engineer's instincts are supported by a survey recently conducted by Geres India, a rural development organisation based in Ladakh. It found a remarkable rising trend of average temperatures by 1C for winter and 5C for summer between 1973 and 2008.

During the same period, rainfall and snowfall had shown a clear declining trend. "Altogether snowfall has come down by almost 60 per cent in the past 50 years," the group's spokesman, Tundup Angmo, told Reuters.

Yet India's Himalayan glaciers are currently the focus of heated debate. This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitted that a claim included in a 938-page scientific report that all of India's glaciers would disappear by 2035 was incorrect, after it emerged it was based on an unsubstantiated media report. The IPCC expressed its "regret [for] the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance".

India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, often attacked by activists, seized on the admission. "The health of the glaciers is a cause of grave concern, but the IPCC's alarmist position that they would melt by 2035 was not based on an iota of scientific evidence," he told reporters. Mr Ramesh's ministry recently published a study paper which claimed that the Himalayan glaciers, which give birth to several key river systems including the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which provide water to hundreds of millions of people, had not retreated abnormally.

Yet Mr Norphel is under no doubts about the reality of what is happening to the environment in which he grew up and where he is now trying to use nature to help itself. "When I was small, if there was a foot of snow it would last for six months. Now it will melt in a week," he said. "That is the result of climate change."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all