Chewang Norphel – Ice Man of India

One would draw inspiration from someone who is designing cool gadgets or someone who is involved in a space programme or someone who is associated with a large internet firm. Yet there are other inspirational too, from remote places of the world, who are coming out with innovative ideas to generate water and greenery in a barren and water scarce region.

artificial-glacier

The story goes back to 1960s when a civil engineer – Chewang Norphel was posted in one of the most backward and remote areas in Ladakh as a sub-divisional officer.  He noticed that all the problems in the region were related to water. During his service, he built roads, bridges, buildings and irrigation systems. But his most important contribution came in the form of artificial glaciers.

Credits to global warming, the climate change in recent decades has resulted in melting of glaciers faster than never before. The sowing period in Ladakh starts in April and May. The farmers often fall short of water since the glaciers melt around June. If the villagers don’t sow during this critical window, there is no crop that year.

One winter in the late 1980s, Norphel noticed that the water from a stream had frozen in the shade of a tree, but flowed freely everywhere else. After thinking about this for a while he realized that the water had frozen because it flowed slower in the area under the tree, while the rest of the water flowed quicker.

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This realization made him come up with a possible solution to the village’s problem. He created an irrigation system where he diverts water coming down the mountain into pipes or channels and brings the water to a shady section of a valley. There, a series of dams is constructed to slow the flow of water and hold it back which then freezes at night. This results in the formation of “Artificial Glacier”.

This simple and cost effective technique has proved to be a blessing to the people and ecosystem of Ladakh region. It has also given a much needed boost to the agriculture. As the artificial glaciers are located at a much lower altitude, they melt earlier than natural glaciers and the villagers start getting water in their sowing period when they need it the most.

The 79 year old Chewang Norphel has so far built 12 artificial glaciers, the largest being the one at the Phutskey valley can supply water for the entire village of 700 people and cost just Rs 90,000 to make – much less when compared to the cost of building dams.

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The artificial glaciers are an innovative solution to the region’s increasingly difficult changes in climate for which Norphel, also called as “Ice Man of India” has been felicitated with the Padma Shri award in 2015. Also a short film titled ‘White Knight’ has been made on his life.

Norphel’s concept of geo-engineering artificial glaciers has started gaining attention and praise among glacier communities around the world. It’s people like him who think outside of the box and come up with simple solutions to complex problems, who show man’s capacity to innovate and adapt in the harshest of conditions and emerge victorious.

Admirable India

Post by: Vivek Swamy

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