Building a glacier

Known as the ice man of Ladakh, Chewang Norfel has created at least five artificial glaciers to replenish water scarcity created by global warming. Zubair Dar reports from Leh.

The iceman of Ladakh: Chewang Norphel

Rising global temperatures had shrunk glaciers in Ladakh and taken the snowline up by 100 meters, leaving little water available to farmers in rural Ladakh during the crucial sowing season. One man decided to fight this phenomenon and began to create artificial glaciers.

Chewang Norfel, the iceman of Ladakh, has created at least five artificial glaciers – some of them measuring as long as 2000 meters. The 74-year-old ice man had been a witness to the hardships of rural life in Ladakh during his service as an engineer in Rural Development Department.

Realising that the rural population of Leh face immense problems due to the scarcity of waters, Norfel decided to work full time for the cause after his retirement in 1994.He had earlier experimented with diverting and blocking water so that it froze to form large masses of ice. “That time, I started a small artificial glacier on trial basis. It gave me good results,” says Norfel.

After his retirement, Norfel joined a NGO – Leh Nutrition Project – to apply his technique to form larger ice masses so that water could be stored for use by farmers in sowing season. Melting of glaciers had meant that farmers were left with little or no water at this crucial time. “When people came to realise the benefits of the artificial glacier, they started helping and we stretched the length of the artificial glacier,” he says.The longest glacier that Norfel created at Phucke village stretches over two kilometres.

In all, Norfel has created five major glaciers that feed agricultural fields in five villages and benefit 1300 families by providing an additional water supply of 30 days every year. “Ploughing and sowing is in full swing in Ladakh in April-May but the water in natural streams is not sufficient.

These glaciers help in making the crop successful,” says Norfel. Norfel builds his artificial glaciers nearer to the villages so that the early spring discharge from these glaciers could reach villages in time. The technique is simple but exhaustive.For creating an artificial glacier, the iceman selects a site for diverting water discharge from its main channel to a shadow area. Then small outlets are created in the diverging channel and walls are erected to slow down the movement of water that flows down the hill slopes through these outlets.

“It freezes near the walls, but some of it leaks from beneath the freezing surface and it is blocked at the next wall,” says Norfel. “This goes on till entire water is made to freeze near the walls. The water, otherwise, would flow down its natural course and never reach the fields at the appropriate time.”

Norfel starts this process as soon as the winter sets in. By February, his glaciers are big enough to feed villages when they melt early spring with the rise in temperatures.

With his experiments working wonders for the farmers, Norfel plans to extend his initiatives to all the villages with water scarcity. More than 80 percent people in rural Leh face water scarcity as winter period has shortened, snowfall has reduced and glaciers have shrunk. The iceman says that he shall build a glacier each for every village with water scarcity.

The process though poses challenges of the highest degree. First and foremost is the availability of funds for such ambitious projects. Norfel says that people volunteered for these jobs earlier but not anymore. “Subsidised food has changed the habits of people. Unless you pay them now, they do not participate in the work. They do not see the benefits they get from the work I am doing,” complains Norfel.

So Norfel tries his luck everywhere – Government of India’s watershed development project, Indian Army’s Operation Sadbhavana, Desert Development Project, private donors and what not.

“Recently, we have approached the science and technology department of Government of India for funding a glacier we plan to make,” he says.

The Ice Man has three new projects in pipeline at village Stakmo, Saboo and Nang. In total, they will incur an expenditure of Rs 22 lacs. Their lengths will measure between one to two kilometres. But Norfel’s projects are very cost effective. A water reservoir of same capacity, he says, will cost five times more.


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