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Storing water: Ladakh's ice engineers

  • Written by  Words by Nishant Tiku and Nick Dudley Ward
  • Published in Cultures
The ice engineers of northern India's Ladakh region The ice engineers of northern India's Ladakh region
02 Sep
2020
Hulking ice stupas dot the arid landscapes of northern India's Ladakh region. Villagers of the region have turned to natural engineering solutions to preserve water – an increasingly scarce resource due to accelerating glacier shrinkages

The landscape of Ladakh in northern India resembles a moonscape. Extremely arid, it has an average annual rainfall of 50-60 millimetres. Like many mountainous regions, Ladakh has experienced severe glacier shrinkage and consequently much reduced water supply especially for remote communities who depend on glacial meltwater in the early spring for irrigation.

The idea of an ice stupa was introduced in the winter of 2013/14, when Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer and founder of the progressive educational institute SECMOL (Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), conceived the idea of vertical water storage structures that could be used for irrigation.

We visited Ladakh in January and February 2020, and explored a number of villages where ice stupas have been built with varying degrees of success. In some, the villagers had given up because the pipes and spray head kept freezing. At the other end of the spectrum, we observed a magnificent 36-metre stupa at the village of Igoo.

Ice stupas are no panacea to resolving the water scarcity issues for the people of Ladakh. Nevertheless, much has been learnt about their engineering, and crucially they are a Ladakhi invention. The chances are that they, if anyone, will figure out how to make them work in the manner intended. The Ladakhi ice stupa engineers show outstanding skill and resourcefulness. At this stage, perhaps the main impact of ice stupas is that they have helped develop awareness of, and the need to actually do something to combat rapidly changing climatic conditions. They have certainly put Ladakh on the map as a serious contender in this global fight. It is plain that Ladakhis are developing a unique engineering competency that others may look towards in the future.


Ice Engineers of LadakhAn ice stupa made in the 2019-20 winter by the villagers of Phyang during the 2020 Ice Stupa Competition, an initiative to spread the art of glacier grafting. The ice stupa is 26m high and stores an estimated seven million litres of water. Phyang was also the site of the first full-scale ice stupa in 2014-15. The Rinpoche (head lama) of Phyang Monastery donated 180 acres of barren village land to establish a university for mountain youth, HIAL (Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh), with the purpose of fusing indigenous ideas with modern technology. Photo: Nishant Tiku

Freezing requirement of ice stupasIn principle, an ice stupa is free from the location, altitude, high cost and shading requirements of the artificial glaciers previously used by Ladakhis. Another attraction of an ice stupa is that they do not need to be located far away from where the water is needed. But building these structures is no easy task. The fundamental challenge is that water freezes rapidly in this cold environment and it is necessary to maintain flow to combat this situation – easier said than done. Photo: Nishant Tiku

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Geodesic domeTo make an ice stupa, a geodesic dome is first constructed using buckthorn or poplar branches and then covered with plastic fish net. Water is piped from a higher altitude spring or glacial meltwater source into a vertical pipe (‘wand’) through the central axis of the dome. A nozzle is attached to the top of the vertical pipe. Water is then sprayed above the dome which freezes as the droplets descend and touch the structure. As the stupa grows, new lengths of pipe are added to the wand, raising the nozzle. Later, threads are tied from the top to the ground; as the water freezes magnificent flying buttresses are created to add strength. Photo: Nishant Tiku

Family of villagers, KarithIntergenerational thinking in action: Grafting and managing glaciers artificially is not a new method of storing water in the region. It’s an art preserved and passed on through generations, just like any other skill for survival. The village of Karith is a perfect example where the students of the Government Middle School with their parents and teachers have built ice stupas for the last three years. Photo: Sonam Dorjey

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Image 5The village of Tarchit is situated in a narrow gorge, also called ‘rong’ in the local dialect, located in the Zanskar range at an altitude of 3,900m. This impressive 32m ice stupa was made in the 2019- 20 winter using a spring water source, which is a few degrees warmer than stream water and rarely freezes. Coming second in the 2020 Ice Stupa Competition, the villagers have benefitted from the stored water and plan to make a series of ice stupas over the coming winters, using multiple springs. Photo: Sonam Dorjey

36m stupa in IgooThis magnificent 36m stupa in the village of Igoo won the 2020 Ice Stupa Competition. The makers were incredibly proud of their work and o ered us the opportunity to climb to the top via a narrow staircase. We found the structure to be a beautiful fusion of nature, art and human ingenuity. Photo: Sonam Dorjey

An aerial view of Takmachik village ice stupaAn aerial view of the Takmachik village ice stupa during early spring 2019. Situated at a lower altitude of around 3,000m where spring arrives earlier in comparison to the rest of the region, the villagers store glacial and ice stupa meltwater water in ‘zings’ (reservoirs). This enables a fair water sharing system overseen by the ‘chorpun’ – a villager elected mutually and entrusted to ensure equal water distribution. Photo: Nishant Tiku

Nishant Tiku recently completed a Master in Environment at the Australian National University, during which he spent eight months in Ladakh learning how to build ice stupas in 2018/19. He is continuing this work for his PhD and is also a research associate for the Himalayan Institute for Alternatives, Ladakh. 

Nick Dudley Ward was formerly director of humanitarian engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand and specialises in engineering in remote areas. In 2018 he established the Scientific Groundwater Exploration Trust currently operating in Tonga. 

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