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Cold comfort

Artificial glaciers, and the water they store, are providing respite to thousands of ecologically vulnerable farmers across Ladakh

Arguments over water sharing are common in Ayee, a water-stressed village in Ladakh’s Nubra valley. It’s not the only one; with average annual rainfall of just around 10cm, most of Ladakh is dependent on glacier meltwater to irrigate crops. This flow of meltwater has drastically fallen as glaciers shrink due to the effects of climate change.

To try and end the crisis, Ayee’s residents took an unusual route. In 2017, they built a small artificial glacier outside the village. Artificial glaciers are manufactured structures where stream or spring water freezes in winter and melts in spring to generate meltwater that can be used for irrigation. But Ayee’s glacier was a rudimentary one, and it has not solved the water problem its people face. “We barely have water for two hours a day,” says local farmer Tundup Dorjey. 

Ayee may now have a better solution. In late 2022, Himmotthan Society, an associate organisation of Tata Trusts, used its technical expertise to build a 150ft-tall artificial glacier-cum-ice mountain outside the village. The superior design and capacity of the new glacier has instilled hope in the residents. “With the extra water, I plan to sow my wheat and vegetable crops earlier than usual this year,” says Mr Dorjey.

Sunit Water way to go

Over the last seven years, Himmotthan has tackled the mountain region’s water woes by partnering communities to build 14 artificial glaciers. The glaciers today benefit nearly 1,300 households and cover 2,000 acres of cropland in 13 villages.

Each glacier provides 60-70 days of additional water a year, ensuring better income security for locals. “We have identified 40 villages where we can build artificial glaciers,” says Samten Choephel, area manager (Ladakh) with Himmotthan.

Artificial glaciers were first developed by Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel in the 1980s. His idea was to use lower-altitude manmade glaciers — which melt earlier than high-altitude natural glaciers — as supplementary sources of water for remote Ladakhi villages. In 2016, Mr Norphel became a consultant at Himmotthan and the Trusts’ Ladakh Livelihood Initiative.

Once was fallow

Using Mr Norphel’s design, Himmotthan’s team guides the construction of artificial glaciers, which are built by the villagers themselves. Sonam Angchuk, a village council member from Murgi in Nubra village, recalls how, in 2019, water was so scanty that many farmers left their fields fallow.

“Families only had enough food for their own consumption that year. There wasn’t much left to sell,” says Mr Angchuk. Murgi built an artificial glacier in 2021 and that has boosted its water supply by over 20%. “It suffices for our wheat crops and our drinking water needs.”

While artificial glaciers cannot hold enough ice to be a primary source of water, they are able to make a difference in supporting agricultural communities when needed. By making every drop of water count, Himmotthan is accelerating climate resilience for thousands of farmers in the cold desert of Ladakh.

The 150ft-high Ayee ‘artificial icefall glacier’, thus called because water is sprayed down the cliffside to form a sheet of ice that resembles a frozen waterfall
The 150ft-high Ayee ‘artificial icefall glacier’, thus called because water is sprayed down the cliffside to form a sheet of ice that resembles a frozen waterfall