Located in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent, Ladakh is a remote mountain desert in the Himalayas where winter temperatures commonly reach as low as -30° Celsius. On average, annual rain and snowfall is only 100 millimetres (mm), making the area one of the harshest inhabitable regions in the world. Villages are mostly located close to glacial streams that serve as tributaries to the main rivers. A key survival element for those who live in these settlements is to divert water from the streams, through canals, to provide water for crops such as wheat and barley.

However, as Himalayan glaciers are reducing at an alarming rate due to the effects of global warming, villages in Ladakh are commonly facing water shortages. The streams of glacial water are now running low, especially by April and May each year. Furthermore, by mid-June the faster melting of snow and glaciers in higher altitudes brings the possibility of flash flooding, which poses a serious threat to farms and the people who live close to the streams. The need to solve Ladakh’s water problem is one that has given rise to an ingenious idea from an engineer named Sonam Wangchuk.

Ice Stupas

Aware of the water shortages that threaten the lives of the people who live in the mountainous Ladakhi desert, Wangchuk’s ‘ice stupas’ create a solution that provides hope to the region. Early one morning as he crossed a bridge, he noticed a chunk of ice hanging beneath the structure. It struck him as odd, and he realised that the ice was melting as a result of direct sunlight and not because of the warmth radiating from the sun.

From this realisation came a simple idea: that it could be possible to collect glacial water in the winter months and store it in the form of ice until it was needed in the spring. He proceeded to work on creating an ‘ice stupa’, which is a cone of ice that resembles the mound-shaped sacred monuments common in Asia. The ice stupas are built on the basis that even at low altitudes, ice takes a long time to melt – especially when it has minimal exposed surface area.

The ice stupa is a work of physics. Creating it requires an underground pipe connected to a stream on one end and the location of the stupa on the other. The water must flow from a higher altitude, as physics maintains that fluids in a system always want to maintain their levels. For example, if the water is coming from 60 metres upstream, it will spray water the same distance into the air at the downstream end. Due to the cold winter air temperature, the result is a fountain that crystallises into ice to form a cone.

The stupa’s cone shape is intentional as the exposed surface area is quite minimal compared to the volume of water that it can hold. For the villages in Ladakh, this means that the cone can melt at a prolonged rate. Wangchuk’s prototypical stupa, for example, held 150,000 litres of water, was 20 feet tall, and lasted from the winter season until mid-May, just at the time when the farmers most needed water.

A Long-term Solution

Wangchuk is not the first to come up with a sustainable solution to Ladakh’s water problems. For centuries, inhabitants of the region have tried to chip away at the glaciers and store the ice at higher altitudes, hopeful that this would create new water streams. An Indian engineer also tried diverting melt-water into artificial lakes located on the shaded sides of the mountains. While the solution created water for many people in the mountains, it couldn’t help those who lived at lower altitudes.

The ice stupa solution may serve to address the water issue, both in the short and long-term. It is certainly an exciting – and innovative – new way to help the inhabitants of the Indian Himalayas.

Michael Kern, a Craniosacral Therapist with a practice in London, is a founder and supporter of Drukpa Trust, a UK-registered charity that provides an environmentally sustainable education for children in the region and has built an award-winning school for nearly 1,000 children.