Leh Engineer Gets Rolex Enterprise Award To Create Ice Stupas

Engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the man who was Phunsukh Wangdu, a role that Aamir Khan played in his film 3 Idiots
Engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the man who was Phunsukh Wangdu, a role that Aamir Khan played in his film 3 Idiots

by Masood Hussain

KL NEWS NETWORK

SRINAGAR

Sonam Wangchuk, one of Leh’s most know engineers, is one of the five people from across the world who was given the Rolex Award for Enterprise 2016. He got the award in Los Angeles on Tuesday for re-shaping the world with their “innovative thinking and dynamism”.

The brain behind Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), one of the NGOs that is behind the turnaround in education sector, Wangchuk has remained central to the changes taking place in Ladakh, especially Leh, where his NGO is based.

Currently, Wangchuk is busy establishing an alternative university on the 65-hectare land donated by the village that will engage youth from Ladakh, the Himalayas and other mountain regions of the world in finding their own solutions to the challenges facing them.

But Wangchuk’s Rolex Award has a different story.

Recognition: Norphel getting the Padma Shri from President of India in 2015
Recognition: Norphel getting the Padma Shri from President of India in 2015

A few years back, another engineer created sensation in the region. His name is Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer whose capacity was more visible after he left the government. Driven by preserving water for desert’s agriculture use early summer, Norphel started diverting water to spots with shade so that it freezes later in autumn. The region with limited working season faces acute water scarcity during sowing in late April though glacial-melt in June improves water discharge.

Norphel successfully worked on his project with paltry funding from various NGOs and demonstrated the systems. It improved the situation albeit at a limited scale but demonstrated the technology. He bagged a series of award. In the last, he was bestowed with Padma Shri for this technology in 2015.

The 2015 Ice Stupa at Phyang village that cost Wangchuk $125000
The 2015 Ice Stupa at Phyang village that cost Wangchuk $125000

Working on this, Wangchuk wants to walk the talk. He intends to create 20 stupas in the district. A visual treat, these stupas, compared to Norphel’s full fledged mountains of frozen snow, melt slowly. Stupas are mound-like hemispherical structures containing relics used as a place of meditation. These are abundantly found in Leh. Wangchuk has used the name of stupa because his ice-structures are almost the same as the stupas. Unlike Norphel’s glaciers that would cover mountains and are flat and fast-melting, Wangchuk’s stupas will have iron or wooden skeleton. These conical ice mounds will be like mini-glaciers and will slowly release water for the growing season.

“The Rolex Award funds will support the project and promote ice stupas as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique,” Wangchuk was quoted saying after he bagged the award. Every stupa that Wangchuk will build will be 30 meter high.

Wangchuk had done a study when in 2015 he created a prototype in Phyang village. Crowdfunded, he took a 2.3 km pipeline to direct glacial streams down to the village desert that irrigated 5000 saplings planted by residents with a 15 lakh litre water supply till July. The exercise cost $125000 that he raised through Indiegogo.

A Selfie in Hollywood: Wangchuk with Chhewang Norphel, the glacier builder
A Selfie in Hollywood: Wangchuk with Chhewang Norphel, the glacier builder

The final round for the selection of the Rolex Award for Enterprise took place in Hollywood. Interestingly, the award permits winners to get one guest along with to the ceremony who normally is a relative. Wangchuk also availed this option. But instead of getting his relative to the function, Wangchuk took Aba Chewang Norphel Lay to “honour his work of the past 30 years in the field of artificial glaciers despite limited resources and support.”

Wanchuk and Norphel with the Sikkim delegation in Leh
Wanchuk and Norphel with the Sikkim delegation in Leh

Interestingly when Leh’s two engineers were preparing to fly to US, the town was hosting a team of 14 officers and scientists from Sikkim. On a five day exposure/ training to SECMOL Campus to learn artificial glaciers building, they were taken Phyang valley. Their visit to Leh was funded by United Nation’s Development Programme UNDP.

In Europe: The skeleton of an ice stupa
In Europe: The wooden skeleton of an ice stupa

Another interesting storey linked to Wangchuk is that before taking the award, he and his colleague Stanzin Norboo Shara created the first ice stupa in the Valley of Val Roseg that is part of Swiss Apls range. They started working on it early November and by the time Wangchuk received the award, the Stupa was actually in place.

Interestingly, the 100,000 Swiss francs (almost Rs 68 lakh) that the Rolex Award will fetch Wangchuk will go as seed money to create the alternative university in Ladakh.

Europe's first Ice stupa in making in an Alps valley
Europe’s first Ice stupa in making in an Alps valley

A mechanical engineering graduate from the erstwhile Regional Engineering College Srinagar (now NIT), Wangchuk earlier designed a low cost water heater besides pioneering organic farming and low cost greenhouses. His out of box thinking and quick implementation of the award made him the inspiration of the Amir Khan starrer 3 Idiots. Phunsukh Wangdu, the character than Khan played in the film is actually Wangchuk.

Building a glacier

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