Bringing back the glaciers
The Earth’s climate has been changing ever since its formation – the effects being felt in its remotest places – and humans have been pushed to adapt to these changes time and again. Our author explores and shares one such innovative idea developed indigenously to combat the severe water shortage faced by villagers during their short sowing season in the Indian Trans-Himalayas.
Our ancestors went through the gradual shift of being primarily nomadic, cave-dwelling individuals with a hunter-gatherer form of lifestyle to a semi-nomadic, agro-pastoral one, eventually turning to a settled lifestyle indulging in large-scale, organized agriculture. Seen from a broader perspective, humans were responding and adapting to the changes in climatic conditions, becoming more resilient towards changing climate, which was getting suitable to sustain a stable livelihood. This was roughly around 12,000 to 7,500 years B.C. Why are we losing sleep over climate change now, then?
Change – the only constant :
Climate has been changing since the formation of the Earth. Over geological time periods, the climate has fluctuated periodically at the global scale through phases of cooling (the ice ages or glacial periods) and warming (the interglacial periods). However, the rate of climate change has been alarming since the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, during the dawn of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America. Large-scale burning of fossil fuels continues to pollute the Earth’s atmosphere at unprecedented concentrations within a very short period of time. This, in turn, is expediting unpredictable, rapid variations in temperature and precipitation across the world, leading to cataclysmic events such as floods, flash-floods, storms, and drought, more frequently than expected.
Drastic changes in the climate of certain unlikeliest of and fragile areas, such as the Poles, and high mountains of the world, such as the Himalayas, concern us even more. The all-encompassing nature of climate change directly and/or indirectly impacts the tiniest to the largest and the most versatile to specific life-forms on this planet, including us.
The ways in which rapid climate change can possibly be challenged are through mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation involves methods and tools to actively check agents of climate change, such as reducing the emission of greenhouse gases through lowering dependence on fossil fuels, developing ‘green’ technologies, informed reforestation and afforestation, and carbon sequestration. Adaptation is an effort to live differently with the change, while making the best use of the changed conditions, even if for a relatively short time period. This could include drinking more soft drinks to beat the heat, construction of irrigation networks to avoid the wrath of unpredictable rainfall, building coastal walls to counter a rise in sea level, changing cropping patterns to surmount shifts in weather and seasonal patterns and getting an air-conditioner for the bedroom.
Most mitigation measures, by their inherent nature, are long-term. The impact of such measures on climate is also, therefore, likely to be reflected over long time periods, usually at the scale of decades, maybe even centuries. Thus, while mitigation or at least attempts to reduce the rate of climate change continues locally and globally, it is crucial to address immediate livelihood risks through adaptation, which has to be area and context-specific. Adaptation, especially, can be extremely challenging in resource-scarce areas, in areas where choices are meager.
Melting barriers :
The cold desert landscape of the Kibber plateau (average altitude about 4,000 m) in the Trans-Himalayan Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, experiences snowfall through nearly half the year (November-April). Fertile patches of land are found only near the villages and the people of Kibber village have effectively just about 10 days during April as a sowing period to utilise the full potential of their invaluable agricultural lands.
Precipitation over the past decade in this region, be it snowfall during winter or rainfall during summer, has been sporadic and unpredictable. Summers are getting unusually hot, while glaciers and snow are melting away relatively quicker than expected, classic symptoms of climate change. Although the area is located at a high altitude and is abundant in glaciers, water availability turns out to be a major issue. The main glaciers are situated high up, feeding large rivers and nalas (locally called lungpa) of the Spiti Valley, and do not supply water to the villages. The smaller glaciers in relatively low-lying areas and closer to the villages are the key water suppliers during the short window of the sowing period. But these smaller glaciers are now melting away faster and earlier than ever.
How did the villagers of Kibber respond to these challenges amidst paltry natural resources? Through a ground-breaking effort triggered by Nature Conservation Foundation and supported by Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and local administration, the people of Kibber created a glacier at about 4,800 m in 2012. They slowed down the flow of water (snow-melted streams) by erecting barriers (check dams) to allow freezing. The ice accumulated during autumn (October-November) and all through winter (December-March). In spring, because of the accumulation, the ice-melting process gets slow and that is the trick. During the day, when the temperature is higher, the meltwater gushes through irrigation canals (Kuhl) and feeds the village reservoir with the much-required water that goes to prepare agricultural fields for sowing green pea and barley.
This glacier will also potentially help facilitate refilling groundwater levels in this desiccated landscape.
Inspired action :
The Kibber artificial glacier is the first of its kind in Spiti Valley and in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The concept of an artificial glacier was developed by Mr. Chewang Norphel, a civil engineer from Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir), and this idea is now serving numerous villages in Ladakh as well, for over a decade. This indigenous, simple and economically viable adaptation is iconic, to say the least, for the communities dwelling in the cold-desert ecosystem of South and Central Asia in their efforts to battle climate change-induced woes.
The combined effort of the villagers, a non-governmental organization, and the State government sets an example of participatory and sustainable community livelihood conservation action. Such a unique and innovative adaptation will hopefully buffer the future of the people, at least partially, against the long-known evils in the history of mankind – drought, and famine.
Adaptation through gradual changes in lifestyle worked for our ancestors to cope with changing climate. However, they did not have to confront this preposterous rate of climate change that we are challenged with today.
Will adaptation alone work for us? Adaptations like artificial glaciers will only serve as long as the glaciers hold out – as long as temperatures remain low enough to allow the slow melting of accumulated ice. The question though remains: a further change in the climate, a little more untimely warmth, what then?
Acknowledgments: The author would like to sincerely thank the people of Kibber and the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (Wildlife Wing) for their generous support.
Meet the Ice Man of India
Chewang Norphel, the brains behind the artificial glaciers, is a civil engineer from Ladakh and used to work with the rural development department of the Jammu and Kashmir government. On January 26, 2015, Chewang Norphel received the Padma Shri – fourth highest civilian award in the country – for this innovative idea of his. Shri. Norphel takes some time out to share his story with Saevus.
Saevus: Many congratulations Shri. Norphel for winning the prestigious Padma Shri award for your artificial glacier technology! Would you kindly explain to our readers what these artificial glaciers are all about?
Shri. Chewang Norphel: Artificial glaciers are an alternative approach in Ladakh to rainwater harvesting practiced in other parts of the country. These artificial glaciers are the need of the time in areas like Ladakh, where the main glaciers are far high and on the hills and do not melt in early spring (April-May), which is the sowing season. We are making the artificial glacier as close to the villages as possible so that the meltwater reaches the village at the earliest without much loss.
Crops, which take a longer time to mature, need to be sown early in spring as we have very short summers here. During winter months, water drained into the rivers goes to waste in the absence of any agricultural activities. This water is diverted at high altitudes (4,500- 5,000 m) towards north-facing hillsides and is released through many small outlets to reduce the velocity of water and it freezes instantly. At higher velocity, it does not freeze. This method also helps in recharging groundwater. Wherever we have built artificial glaciers, the discharge of springs in the villages has been rejuvenated. So, it is a very simple technique, low on cost, and highly beneficial in such areas.
Saevus: How did you first get the idea of building an artificial glacier?
Shri. Chewang Norphel: I was inspired by the water tap near my gate. During winter, we would leave the tap open so that the water would not freeze and pipes would not burst. The water coming from the tap would be drained into the garden. Due to big trees around the garden, it would always be shady and eventually, in the winter months, a small glacier would form over there. The mainstream flowing nearby would not freeze because of the high velocity of the water. This is when I thought that if I could divert the water from the mainstream into a shaded area and slow down the velocity, like the water coming from the tap, it could be converted into ice and thus conserved for it to be used in the sowing season. This was my inspiration for artificial glacier technology.
Saevus: Your innovative thinking has to a certain extent solved the problem of water shortage in some of the remotest mountain villages. Has this scarcity of water always been there, or is it a more recent occurrence and a result of global climatic changes?
Shri. Chewang Norphel: The Scarcity of water is seen more in villages where there is less snowfall in the winters. Definitely, this is an occurrence of the global climatic change. A decade earlier, we would receive very heavy snowfall and all the mountains would be covered with glaciers. Now, we only see a few white spots on the highest peaks.
Saevus: You won the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India and a documentary has also been made about your life. You have also been nicknamed the ‘Ice Man’! How do you feel about all this appreciation that you have received from the government as well as the community?
Shri. Chewang Norphel: I was never expecting this award, not even in my dreams. I come from a Buddhist family and strongly believe in karma, and this only makes my belief in it stronger. During my service, I had struggled a lot with various rural development projects in some of the remotest areas. So I believe all this is the fruit of my hard work.
Saevus: Currently, you have built more than a dozen artificial glaciers in several locations. Do you plan to take this innovative idea to more locations now?
Shri. Chewang Norphel: I am always open to guiding anyone who is interested in this technology. Last year, some villagers from Zangskar (460 km from Leh town) came to me for my help and I willingly agreed to do so. We completed three glaciers there. Now this summer, I have to go there again to check them. I hope that after seeing these glaciers, other villages in need of this technology will also try to adopt it.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of Saevus magazine