Artificial glaciers for a Himalayan desert: solution or hype?

From disappearing caps in Greenland to receding glaciers on Mount Everest, ice is the most visible symbol in the debate over climate change. In the high-altitude Himalayan region of Ladakh - located in the volatile Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir - ice is more than a rhetorical concern.

© arjun Sharma

Ice Stupas in March 2017, with the Phyang monastery in the background and the tree planation in the foreground

For centuries, ice melt from the hundreds of small glaciers abreast its high mountain ranges has been assiduously tapped by intrepid farmers through an intricate web of irrigation channels to make its arid valleys fertile and habitable. With the growing global concerns about retreating Himalayan glaciers, which serve as ‘water towers’ for almost a fourth of the world’s population, what used to be part of the daily struggle and preoccupation of Ladakhi communities, is now being recast in the language of global climate change.

Does this new way of looking at human — environment interactions in this fragile ecosystem encourage sustainable development, or does it simplify the complexity of these relationships? The on — going controversy surrounding an effort to promote artificial glaciers provides a valuable insight into this issue. Its lessons resonate beyond Ladakh.

Ice Stupas

The villages of Phyang and Phey are located along a valley bisected by a stream fed by five glaciers on top of the Ladakh range in the north, to its lowest point in the south, on the banks of the Indus river, where the smaller village of Phey is situated. By road, the valley lies sixteen kilometres from Leh — one of Ladakh’s two district capitals and urban centres.

© Arjun Sharma

View of the Phyang village in the summer looking north from the monastery. Main stream is visible in the middle ground

When approaching Phyang from the main highway during the early spring months between March and May, one immediately notices two pillars of ice standing incongruously like melting ice cream cones in the dun coloured wasteland; in the background, the imposing Buddhist monastery of Phyang looms authoritatively over the village. These are the artificial glaciers of the Ice Stupa project, a much publicised undertaking by a Ladakhi engineer, social activist, and politician, Mr. Sonam Wangchuk.

The technological solution offered by the Ice Stupa is straightforward: it diverts water from the main glacier fed stream, and a large underground spring next to the monastery through high density plastic pipes, which are less liable to malfunction due to the extreme variation in temperature typical of this region. These pipes force the water through a narrower vertical pipe with a sprinkler device attached on top.

In the winter, when temperatures usually hover between — 10 to 20 degrees Celsius, the water droplets sprayed through the sprinklers freeze and form gradual layers of vertically compacted ice. When the ice starts melting in the early spring months of April and May, its run off is captured in storage tanks and then diverted for further use. Currently, the Ice Stupa has constructed two artificial glaciers. The water from these glaciers is being used to irrigate a small tree plantation on land owned by the Phyang monastery.


Workers preparing the Ice Stupa for the inauguration ceremony

Contrasting global and local opinions

So far, the reaction of the global press to the Ice Stupa project has been emphatic and fawning: ‘The “Ice Stupas” That Could Water the Himalaya’ announces National Geographic. The New York Post goes further and declares that ‘Artificial glaciers saved this remote village from a water crisis.’ Similarly, the British periodical — the Guardian — observes that ‘an ingenious idea to build artificial glaciers at lower altitudes using pipes, gravity and night temperatures could transform an arid landscape into an oasis.’

Such positive press has played in favor of the Ice Stupa project. For instance, the Swiss watchmaker Rolex recently awarded Mr. Wangchuk 100,000 Swiss Francs to “promote ice stupas as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique.” Additionally, architects, scientists, corporations from around the world, and even the Indian army, have enthusiastically volunteered their expertise, labour, or material to the project.

Local public opinion is either ambiguous or outright hostile

Local public opinion, on the other hand, is either ambiguous or outright hostile: One villager I interviewed bluntly remarked ‘it [the ice stupa project] is a failure’; another said that ‘for all the attention the ice stupas are getting, we [the villagers] haven’t seen a drop of water.’

These simmering resentments came to a head in March this year when a group of villagers from the downstream village of Phey organised a demonstration challenging the projects right to draw water from the main stream to build glaciers that are currently being used exclusively for irrigating tree plantations on land belonging to the monastery.

For the two months that I was in Ladakh between March and May, a delegation of villagers from Phey and Phyang, along with government bureaucrats, representatives from the Phyang monastery, and Mr. Sonam Wangchuk, were locked in regular negotiations to resolve the dispute. Pending the resolution of the villagers’ grievances, the future expansion of artificial glaciers remains uncertain.

This leads one to ask the obvious question: how can there be such a vast difference between this project’s portrayal in the global media, and how its intended beneficiaries perceive it?

© Arjun Sharma

Farmers claim that in the winter, water from the main glacier melt stream is required for recharging underground springs and wetlands seen here. In the foreground are shrines dedicated to water spirits underlining the material and symbolic importance of these sites

Climate change solution or evolving practice?

To untangle this conundrum, it is first important to establish whether the Ice Stupa is, or can be, a solution to climate change induced glacier recession. The simple answer is that it is not, and can’t be.

Glacier grafting and snow harvesting techniques have been developed and applied in the Himalayas and other mountain regions for centuries. Mr. Chewang Norphel, a resident of the Igu village — also located in the Leh valley — made the first reported attempt to build artificial glaciers in Ladakh almost a decade ago. The Ice Stupa glaciers were inspired by his example and intend to improve upon his design by stacking the ice vertically, instead of horizontally.


If natural glaciers shrink due to global warming, or change in weather patterns result in less snowfall during the winter, this will reduce the total volume of water available in the system, with or without an artificial glacier.

High-altitude deserts like Ladakh experience long cold winters, and short summers with minimal rain fall. In the Phyang valley, there is only one agricultural season, which runs roughly from May to September. The staple cereal crops: wheat, barley and buckwheat have to be sown in the months of April and May. They also require very precise amounts of water at specifically timed intervals for the first few months, in order to survive. This also happens to be the time when the glaciers located at high altitudes have started to melt, however since the temperature at higher altitudes is lower, sometimes the glacier ice and snow cover does not melt quickly enough, resulting in less water available for irrigation.

Artificial glaciers try to remedy this by storing water in the form of ice at lower altitudes during the winter, so that subsequently it can melt faster and provide a more reliable source of water during the initial crucial months of the agricultural season. If natural glaciers shrink due to global warming, or change in weather patterns result in less snowfall during the winter, this will reduce the total volume of water available in the system, with or without an artificial glacier.

The architects of the Ice Stupa project may argue that to a certain extent they counter this because they draw water which is wasted during the winter time, when the main stream is not used for irrigation and flows into the Indus. Here too, their claim is hard to support as experienced farmers observe that the main glacier fed stream, which appears to be un-utilised in the winter, in fact recharges underground springs in both villages, which serve as the main sources of drinking water throughout the year.

Community managed water

© Arjun Sharma

A typical, locally constructed irrigation channel using glacial melt water

Moreover, precisely timed allocation of water to terraced fields located in an uneven mountain terrain requires a high degree of social co-ordination. Traditionally, every household in a village is expected to contribute labour or material for the upkeep of irrigation structures.

Water distribution is also managed within the village. The village of Phyang, for example, is administratively divided into ten neighbourhoods, each of which receives water according to a pre-agreed schedule. There is also an arrangement between Phyang and the village of Phey, which has stood for at least hundred years. According to this arrangement, Phey can only take water from specific parts of the main stream after all the fields of Phyang have been watered. In late June, during the night, it is not unusual to see villagers from Phey guarding the points where they are allowed to block the sub channels to divert water to their village.

Despite the cooperative nature of water management, the advantages accruing from geographic location, historical, and social entitlements continue to affect the level of insecurity experienced by different neighbourhoods in the Phyang valley.

Despite the cooperative nature of water management, the advantages accruing from geographic location, historical, and social entitlements continue to affect the level of insecurity experienced by different neighbourhoods in the Phyang valley. While the households situated in the upper half of the Phyang valley report few problems with accessing water for consumption and irrigation, neighbourhoods – along with the village of Phey — located downstream of the monastery, are much more vulnerable to water insecurity.

The demonstrations by the Phey villagers against the Ice Stupa project needs to be understood within this context of community based management and unequal access to water resources. From the perspective of Ladakhi villagers, constructing a new channel, or a pipe, to redirect water for an ice stupa, or a similar project, has both material as well as social repercussions throughout the tightly integrated system. Such a process requires not only collective engineering solutions — tailored to the local conditions — but also sensitive, and sometimes, contentious negotiations between households, neighbourhoods, and villages.

Which problem, whose solution?

It follows from this that any ‘sustainable’ solution to water problems in Ladakh has to be technologically, politically, and socially sophisticated, not to mention, contextualised based on each village’s specific needs. It is particularly in the latter aspects that the Ice Stupa project — like many similar development projects — falls short. While Mr Wangchuk and the backers of the Ice Stupa project have displayed impressive technical problem-solving abilities, and managed to effectively communicate their achievements to a global audience, they have neglected to translate their project into the existing water sharing conventions, at the local level.

In a meeting with Mr. Wangchuk before the Phey protests, I brought up the question of how he planned to integrate the Ice Stupa with existing water sharing arrangements in Phyang and Phey. In response, he provided a generic template used by many development NGOs and agencies across the world, which encourages involving “all stakeholders,” “creating water committees,” and training “water entrepreneurs;” the latter referring to specially trained youth who would help in maintaining the Ice Stupas.

But who decides who is, and isn’t, a stakeholder? what is the history of the relationships, and political dynamics between the different “stakeholders”? why create separate water committees and not use the arrangements that already exist? how would reassigning the responsibility for maintaining water distribution from the community to “water entrepreneurs” affect the sustainability of the solution in the future, or for that matter, be accepted by the villagers?

It is in the process of answering these questions that we may discover the bridge between expectations and reality.