Building Artificial Glaciers in Ladakh: Sonam Wangchuk

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Faced with retreating glaciers high in the Himalaya, engineer Sonam Wangchuk invented a way to store winter water for irrigation—a 78-foot-tall “ice stupa”. Built in one of the most arid regions of northern India, these artificial glaciers delay the release of meltwater into the spring by freezing water into a cone of ice shaped like a stupa—a Buddhist structure which represents enlightenment.

In this Season 3 premiere episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak to Sonam about the origins of the Ice Stupa project and his ongoing mission to inspire global change. We discuss the impact of connecting technology with tradition to inspire local communities, hear how he resolved the issue of Ladakh’s cold school buildings using mud and the sun, and find out how his 1.6 million-strong social media following helped bring about local governmental action.

About the guest:

Sonam Wangchuk is a prominent mechanical engineer, innovator and education reformist from Ladakh, India.

In 1988, he founded he Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), which aims to bring reforms in the government school system in Ladakh. In 1994 he was instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope, a collaboration of government, village communities and the civil society to bring reforms in the government school system.

Wangchuck is also a founding member of The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) an alternative university that engages youths from multiple Himalayan countries in research and development to tackle the issues faced by mountain people, especially in the domains of education, culture and the environment.
To solve the water crisis facing mountain regions he invented the Ice Stupa artificial glacier which stores stream waters in winter in the form of giant ice cones and releases the water in late spring as they melt.

Episode Highlights:

  • “As a child, I grew up listening to stories from our grandparents about some technique that our ancestors used to make glaciers in the mountains […] then thought about how we could solve it more scientifically in today's times. That's how we started pondering on freezing water in our villages, that goes to waste, into ice that could stay frozen until summertime”
  • “When we saw that it was a white conical structure, we thought we should give it a name that connects the local people. Connects technology with tradition”.
  • On making ice stupas: “It requires the engagement of people. In the winter it's a little difficult, so we make it fun by inviting young people to participate in a competition called the ‘Ice Stupa Competition’. So it becomes like an adventure sport for them”.
  • “Engineering is not just about materials, pumps and pipes. It's also about how to connect to people”.
  • “We ran an international crowdfunding campaign that drew a lot of interest from people around the world. It really was like the whole world coming together to build these stupas— which used to be built to stop calamities from coming—but now it was to check climate change effects like glacier meltwater shortage”.
  • “Engineers are problem solvers—an engineer must be solving problems. And local people best understand their challenges and the root causes of them. So if you are a local and an engineer, then it is a responsibility you have on your shoulders to solve these problems […] I pledged to myself that I will stay put in Ladakh every winter. That's the only way I can understand the problems and find solutions.”
  • “I've always believed in learning, researching, implementing, and sharing with the people. If you don't have the people with you, it's not much use to be an engineer or scientist shut away in a laboratory. So social media gives you that way to reach out to the people.”
  • ”Rather than trashing Earth as a use and throw thing and going to Mars to trash it. I draw my inspiration to do the opposite, make Earth as beautiful as possible for the people and take that as a challenge, rather than leaving it.

Photograph by Lobzang Dadul | Courtesy of ©Sonam Wangchuk

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