Ingenious solutions for replicating glacial meltwater are under way in Ladakh — involving Tibetan Buddhist monks…

Text: Michael Buckley || Research: Allan Fotheringham  || Photos: Mikael Lorin + STSSC

March 2015: High in the mountains of Himalayan India, an unusual ceremony is taking place. Close to Phyang Monastery, a giant stupa is being inaugurated — in blessing rituals led by HH Drikung Kyabgon, the head of all Drikung Kagyu monasteries in Ladakh. Dubbed the ‘Ice Stupa’, this pyramid of ice is the inspired vision of mechanical engineer Sonam Wangchuk.

A conical-shaped stupa normally seals in Buddhist treasures or relics — or the ashes of an important person as a funerary ceremony. But this stupa is for sealing a very different kind of treasure: water, in the form of ice. Water supply is precious in this region. Due to climate-chaos factors, glaciers are not performing the same way they used to: which is accumulating snow-pack and ice in winter, and providing a slow release of water, drip by drip, in the spring and summer. A slow drip upon which farmers totally depend to irrigate their crops.

The inauguration involved speeches by civic and monastic leaders—and prayers for the success of the project so that no obstacles should arise. As well as handing out certificates to the dedicated volunteers, and thanking those who contributed to crowdfunding.

So how exactly did Tibetan Buddhist monks turn into budding geo-engineers? The answer is complex. It all started in the mid-1980s, with retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel. Who came up with the ingenious idea of replicating what glaciers do. Standing at the stream behind his house one day, Chewang Norphel noticed that the water at the edges ran slower and froze to ice — while the water in the middle ran quicker and didn’t freeze. 

Based on this observation he developed and built his first “artificial glacier” in 1987 in a Ladakhi village, with the help of people who had been facing a severe water shortage for a long time. With crowdfunding of US$25,000, Norphel made structures that looked like fields of ice at an altitude of over 5,200 metres. These artificial glaciers were flat structures built in the shade of a mountain. They were constructed in the form of small stone embankments that impeded the flow of water to form shallow pools that can store water. The tanks helped to conserve water that would have otherwise melted and dispersed down the stream. The innovation made it possible to irrigate more prolonged and better yielding crops in the dry farmland of Ladakh. This technique has yielded good results, as the amount of irrigation water available rose as much as 50 percent during spring.

Norphel’s brilliant idea has evolved in other hands. Mechanical engineer Sonam Wangchuk realized that ice conservation could take place at lower altitudes, like 3200 metres. In the winter of 2014, with crowdfunding of US$125,000, he developed and built a pyramid of ice at Phyang that he dubbed an ‘Ice Stupa.’ 


Making the ice stupa required all hands on deck—both monks and lay people—assembling a conical framework of pipes and branches. River water was brought down the mountain slope in pipes buried underground. The lower end of the pipe was bent to form a nozzle, which jutted out of the ground. Water sprinkled out of this nozzle — and since the temperatures in these regions hover around minus 30°C, it froze and settled on a wooden frame, taking the shape of a cone. The stupa at Phyang soared to a height of almost 20 metres — storing about two million litres of water. During summer, it melted to shed 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water every day. Water from this stupa was used by the villagers to plant thousands of poplar and willow trees. Following the success of this pilot project, scores more ice stupas are planned for this area —each able to hold up to ten million litres of water.

Coming back full circle to the monks of Phyang Monastery, here’s another fascinating fact: ice stupas can be ‘re-used.’ Which is where the monks at Phyang Monastery come in—they re-activated the original ice stupa after it was depleted of ice over the summer.

One of the sponsors of the ice stupa at Phyang is the Swedish-Tibetan Society for School & Culture (STSSC). Which later teamed up with Water For All, another Swedish NGO, to sponsor the making of an ‘ice waterfall’ near the remote village of Kugshok. An ice waterfall is a further development of the ice stupa concept. The reason for making an ice waterfall glacier in some places is due to the lay of the land— whereby the water cascades down from nearby peaks, to be taken by channels to farmers. By positioning an ice waterfall on the shaded side of a mountain, it will melt more slowly.

As with the ice stupa at Phyang, the ice waterfall at Kugchok has been made by both monastic and lay people. The inhabitants of Kugshok are a mixture of Buddhists and Muslims who work and do most things together. “Kugshok is an example of a society in harmony — an example not only for Ladakh, but for the whole world,” HH Drikung Kyabgon said, when he inaugurated an ice waterfall. He has also inaugurated ice waterfalls at two more remote villages.

Glaciers are receding at a rapid rate in the Himalayas— mainly due to human-caused problems, particularly the rain of black soot from rampant burning of fossil fuels in both India and China. Minimising that rain of black soot is quite possible—if China and India can get their act together to drastically limit the use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the ice stupas and ice waterfalls of Ladakh provide a way forward to counter the impact of looming water crisis in remote Himalayan regions.


Michael Buckley is author of Meltdown in Tibet, and creator of the digital photobook Tibet, Disrupted.

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