Himalayan farmers benefit from artificial glaciers

Sensemaking / Himalayan farmers benefit from artificial glaciers

Twelve new glaciers have reduced water disputes and extended the growing season in Ladakh.

By Roger East / 01 Oct 2013

Strategically placed ‘artificial glaciers’ are providing water for farmers in Ladakh, India, replacing dwindling meltwater supplies from existing glaciers. As well as reducing water sharing disputes, this allows farmers to extend the growing season, harvest two crops in a year and develop pastures for cattle rearing.

The technique has been practised for centuries in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges. Retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel, known locally as the ‘Ice Man’, has been growing artificial glaciers in Ladakh for over a quarter of a century. Streams are diverted in October and November to a shady part of the mountainside, where stone embankments are constructed to hold the water in a series of shallow pools. Here it soon freezes, but trickles out through narrow pipes as the weather warms up in the spring.

Local communities in Ladakh have shown sufficient enthusiasm for this solution to share the modest costs of the dozen artificial glaciers Norphel has so far completed. The first of these, in Phutse village, is still the largest at some 2km long, while others average some 250 metres by 100 metres wide, holding around 20,000 cubic metres of water and costing only $6,000-10,000 to set up. The materials are strictly local – stones and earth – and there's no pumping or other energy use involved, just manual labour.

An alarming 260 gigatons of freshwater is lost each year due to glacier melt, according to research published earlier this year. Amy Higgins, who wrote her PhD thesis on glacier-growing in Ladakh, explains how this has affected local farmers. “As climate change uncouples glacial melt cycles from the agricultural season, water is in increasingly short supply for farmers in the Himalaya”, she says. The lower-altitude glaciers that used to provide vital meltwater for irrigating crops in March and April have disappeared; higher up, and in constant retreat, they don't yield anything until June.

Geoff Manaugh, futurist and author of a speculative blog about architecture, landscape and the environment, says that while artificial glaciers are “by no means a replacement for large-scale freshwater infrastructure”, they “seem both reliable and locally effective” for rural communities whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. – Roger East

Photo credit: Flickr Christopher Michel

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