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Indian Engineer 'Builds' New Glaciers To Fight Global Warming

A retired Indian engineer is waging his own one-man battle to stop global warming melting away the Himalayan glaciers: He claims he has discovered a way to create new glaciers, reports  The Telegraph, London.Chewang Norphel,

PTI [ Updated: October 31, 2009 23:32 IST ]
indian engineer builds new glaciers to fight global warming
indian engineer builds new glaciers to fight global warming

A retired Indian engineer is waging his own one-man battle to stop global warming melting away the Himalayan glaciers: He claims he has discovered a way to create new glaciers, reports  The Telegraph, London.Chewang Norphel, 76, has "built" 12 new glaciers already and is racing to create five more before he dies.

By then he hopes he will have trained enough new "icemen" to continue his work and save the world's "third icecap" from being transformed into rivers.

His race against time is shared by Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister who called on the region's Himalayan nations, including China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, to form a united front to tackle glacial melting.

The great Himalayan glaciers, including Kashmir's Siachen glacier, feed the region's most important rivers, which irrigate farm land in Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh and throughout the Indian sub-continent. The apparent acceleration in glacial melting has been blamed for the increase in floods which have destroyed homes and crops.

Chewang Norphel, the "Iceman of Ladakh", however believes he has an answer.

By diverting meltwater through a network of pipes into artificial lakes in the shaded side of mountain valleys, he says he has created new glaciers.

A dam or embankment is built to keep in the water, which freezes at night and remains frozen in the absence of direct sunlight. The water remains frozen until March, when the start of summer melts the new glacier and releases the water into the rivers below.

So far, Mr Norphel's glaciers have been able to each store up to one million cubic feet of ice, which in turn can irrigate 200 hectares of farm land. For farmers, that can make the difference between crop failure and a bumper crop of more than 1,000 tons of wheat.

The "iceman" says he has seen the effects of global warming on farmland as snows have become thinner on the ground and ice rivers have melted away never to return.

His own work has now been recognised by the Indian government, which has given him £16,000 to build five new glaciers. But time is his enemy, he told The Hindustan Times. "I'm planning to train villagers with instruction CDs that I have made, so that I can pass on the knowledge before I die," he said.

Growing up in Skarra, a tiny village on the outskirts of Leh, Chewang Norphel believed water was a magical word.  Norphel's family, like other farmers in the area, depended entirely on the melting snow from natural glaciers to irrigate their fields. The fate of the Ladakhi farmer's crop rested entirely on nature's whims.

When Norphel joined the state rural development department as a civil engineer, he heard desperate pleas for water from every Ladakhi village he visited. And, if one expected a sarkari babu to gloss over them, Norphel had found his heart melting.

And, so moved was he that as soon as he took early retirement in 1987, Norphel took it on himself to set things right.

“I felt compelled to find a solution to the acute water scarcity,” says the retired engineer. He evolved an innovative project to meet farmers' needs. That year itself, he constructed the first ‘artificial glacier' at Phoktse Pho. The revolution had started.

Norphel's artificial glaciers trap and freeze water at the start of winter. Water from a stream or river is diverted along a large wall of rocks built at the foot of a mountain. This water is channeled through pipes to an area that is protected from the glare of the mountain sun.

Water accumulates in a large pool. The pipes reduce the speed of its flow and, as temperature drops, the water freezes to form sheets of ice. In summer, this ice melts at the start of the sowing season. The water is diverted to fields, freeing farmers from their dependence on natural glaciers.

“We use rocks and pipes available locally to build these glaciers,” says Norphel. Local labourers construct the low-cost structures, built for about Rs 1.5 lakh a glacier. So far, 12 glaciers have been built in Ladakh under Norphel's supervision.

The Desert Development Programme of the Central government funded the initial stage of the project. Norphel later approached the Centre's watershed development programme for funds. “People scoffed when I first presented the idea,” remembers Norphel.

“Officials were skeptical and villagers were not ready to accept the concept,” he says. But Norphel soldiered on with rare stoicism.

He held meetings with village elders to explain the benefits of artificial glaciers. Gradually, his enthusiasm caught on and villagers agreed to get involved in the construction work. When the artificial glaciers morphed from concept to functional reality, farmers in the area began expressing their gratitude to the enterprising engineer. They now affectionately refer to him as Ladakh's glacier man.

Given the funds, Norphel wants to build a glacier in all of Ladakh's 112 villages. But official apathy and red tape proved to be stumbling blocks. The watershed development programme allots Rs 25 lakh per project per village on paper.

But so far, only Rs 6 lakh has been released in two installments over the last six years. “We are going ahead with construction, hoping that the money will be released. Payments are due and people lose faith if you don't pay them for their work,” says Norphel.

Despite the setbacks, Norphel is determined to continue his work. As chief project officer of the Leh Nutrition Project, one of Ladakh's old NGOs, he is also addressing other concerns of Ladakhi farmers.

 His organisation is building greenhouses and lambing sheds in areas like Changthang where it is impossible to plant crops because of the severe cold. Water reservoirs with lock systems and water releasing valves are being built in villages to ease the farmers' burden.

“As long as I have the energy, I will do my best to help Ladakh's forgotten farmers,” says Norphel. A hostile terrain and harsh weather make survival a tough battle for Ladakhi farmers. Though they may be just an obscure dot on global India's map, Norphel is determined to continue with this Himalayan task.

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