Sonam Wangchuk

2016 Laureate, Environment
Ladakh, Born 1966

Project Goal

Build/develop artificial glaciers to supply irrigation water in the Trans-Himalayan cold deserts 

Location: Ladakh

Ice towers in the desert

The Ladakh region lies at roughly 3,500 m altitude between the Kunlun and Great Himalayan mountain ranges. Farmers among its population of 280,000 Buddhists, Shia Muslims and ethnic minorities face acute water shortages during the early crop-growing period between April and May. The huge outflows of glacial melt water – sometimes in the form of destructive flash floods – do not begin until after that crucial period.

Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk was certain that access to water in the desert landscapes around many high-altitude towns and villages of Ladakh could be improved if the huge seasonal outflows of glacial water could be frozen. Inspired by the experimental work of a fellow Ladakhi engineer, Chewang Norphel, he has developed a remarkably simple and effective system, creating what he calls “ice stupas”, conical ice mounds that behave like mini-glaciers, slowly releasing water for the growing season.

Norphel had created flat, artificial glaciers at heights of 4,000 m and above. But villagers were reluctant to climb that high to maintain them. It was a tantalizing situation: a logical water supply solution was available, but faced challenges.

And then Wangchuk experienced a eureka moment. It came as he walked past a bridge over a stream in the village of Phey, near the educationally and environmentally innovative SECMOL Alternative School, which he conceived and built in the 1990s. “I saw that there was ice under the bridge, which at 3,000 m was the warmest and lowest altitude in the whole area,” he recalls, “and this was in May. So I thought – we can keep ice right here in Phey if we protect it from the sun.

“But where do you get shade? I began to think about reflective materials, and then I started thinking about reducing the surface area for a given volume of ice, realizing that basically the sun needs surface area to heat things up.” He understood that conical ice-mounds would have minimal surface area, and would melt much more slowly than flatter fields of ice, even if they stood in sunlight.

Wangchuk has always believed that education and care for the environment should go hand in hand, and so, in 2013, he and his students from the SECMOL Alternative School began to create prototypes of the ice stupas. Wangchuk likens them to Tibetan religious stupas – elegant hemispherical or conical structures with pointed tops that contain relics, such as the remains of Buddhist monks. The name ice stupa would, he believed, give a better sense of ownership for this concept among the local population.

The ice stupas are formed using glacial stream water carried down from higher ground through buried pipes whose final section rises vertically: due to the difference in height, pressure builds up in the pipe and the stream water passes along the pipe, flows up and out from its raised tip like a fountain into sub-zero air and then freezes as it falls to form a gradually growing ice stupa. In late spring the melt water is collected in large tanks, then fed onto planted land using drip-irrigation pipes.

In 2014, there was an encouraging sign: the seven-metre tall first prototype ice stupa lasted until 18 May. Wangchuk was invited by His Holiness Drikung Kargyud Chetsang Rinpochey and the monks of the Phyang monastery, a few kilometres north of Phey, to build ice stupas to alleviate serious crop-water shortages. Together with the monastery he set up a crowdfunding campaign that paid for a 2.3 km pipeline to bring glacial stream water down to the village; the resulting ice stupa grew to a height of 20 metres. In 2015, it lasted until early July, supplying 1.5 million litres of melt water to the 5,000 saplings planted by all the villagers and monks.

The success of that ice stupa triggered Wangchuk’s latest, highly ambitious project in Phyang to create up to 20 ice stupas approximately 30 m high, each capable of supplying 10 million litres of water. He also plans a substantial tree-planting programme once the new water supply system is established.

“The Rolex Award funds will support the project and promote ice stupas as a climate-change adaptation and desert-greening technique,” says Wangchuk.

He is currently working on establishing an alternative university on the 65-hectare land donated by the village that will engage youth from Ladakh, the Himalayas and other mountains of the world in finding their own solutions to the challenges facing them – a spirit that is epitomized by the ice stupa project.

Other 2016 Laureates