Photos and Video by Peter Caton
Chewang Norphel, Ice Man’s Dams in the Himalayas
Chewang Norphel, a 79 years old civil engineer from Ladakh, India, started building dams, or artificial glaciers, out of ice, 30 years ago, in order to efficiently use the water gathered from melting ice in the Himalayas
“People call me Ice Man,” Chewang Norphel, a 79 years old civil engineer from Ladakh, India, says. For his whole life Norphel was living in “the land of high passes,” surrounded by major glaciers, which became his lifelong obsession and inspiration.
Building dams out of ice, 30 years ago, Norphel was laughed at and never taken seriously. But today, he stands in front of the camera proudly, as a true climate hero. Dressed in a crimson red rope that creates an astonishing contrast with the sand-colored glaciers, he tells his story with a shade of shyness in his eyes, perhaps due to the English, a language few people in his village can speak.
Back in 1987, Norphel has started constructing massive dams in order to efficiently use the water gathered from melting ice. “I was working on the rural development program [back then],” he stars. “And I have visited every nook and corner, where I found [out that] the farmers had faced problems for the past 30 – 40 years [because] of the water shortage.” But dams cause many environmental and social concerns, as well as being a drain of financial resources. A decade later, Norphel found his solution: bring water closer to the villages by “constructing” artificial glaciers for a fraction of a dam’s price.
As Ladakh is close to the glaciers, villagers have gotten used to irrigating their fields with melting ice thanks to the climate change. “But glaciers recede speedily,” says Norphel. Snowmelts are now resulting in floods, thus putting at risk 80 percent of the farmers whose businesses depend on regular melting cycles.
After realizing that water shortages occur during cropping season, while during winter, streams of water are just running off and being wasted, he started experimenting with various methods of water conservation that he learned as a civil engineer.
One day, Norphel noticed that a small stream had frozen solid just under the poplar trees shade. This has happened because the flow was too quick to freeze, while the sluggish trickle of the water beneath the trees was just slow enough. By diverting the river into the shady valley and slowing the stream while constructing checks, Norphel gave a birth to his very first artificial glacier. By now, he has constructed 12 of them, going beyond the prayers of desperate farmers.
“It is a very simple technique, and a low cost project,” nods Norphel. Even though he was involved in many complex engineering projects, simplicity won in this case. “Even a layman once visited the site – he [could] understand and even implement his own [artificial glacier] for around $2,000 – 2,500.”
The biggest artificial glacier, 1000 ft long and 150 ft wide, with an average depth of 4ft, is situated near the village of Phuktsey. Having cost $2,000, it now provides water for the village of 700 people. Cement water reservoirs of similar capacities typically cost $34,000.
“[But] the most challenging part of [my activities] was that it was very difficult for people to understand the new concept,” Norphel says. “So everybody tends to laugh at me and my purposes, and how I ventured to this project with my full speed and dedication… Thank God, in the end it was a big success, and people approved it.” Artificial glaciers have proved to significantly increase the groundwater recharge, rejuvenating the spring and providing necessary water for irrigation and domestic use. As Norphel built his glaciers at lower elevations so they melt earlier, the cropping season was also expanded, thus giving a weighty boost to local agriculture.
Right now, he is a hero both at home and abroad. Back in 2012, award-winning documentary filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava directed a short film on Norphel’s life. Entitled the White Knight, the film was screened in many festivals in India and abroad, bringing recognition to the man who sees no divinity in his achievements.
“My message to the world is act now,” Norphel finishes the interview with a wry smile in the corner of his lips. “Before it’s too late.”
Both climate change and tourism in the area has transformed Ladakh into a wintry desert where the average rainfall of just 50 mm. As evidence of the recent warming, the Zanskar River, which used to freeze completely during the winters, now freezes so thinly that walking on it becomes dangerous. In addition, according to the IPCC, glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world. Some of the benefits of Norphel’s artificial glaciers include increased green belt and tree planting as well as recharging underground aquifers and increasing water tables.
“People call me Ice Man,” Chewang Norphel, a 79-year-old civil engineer from Ladakh, India, says. For his whole life, Norphel has been living in a “land of high passes,” situated near major glaciers, and they became his true inspiration for innovations in water conversation.Back in 1987, Norphel invented artificial glaciers and started constructing massive dams in order to efficiently use the water gathered from melting ice. Being simple and low-cost projects, these inventions have changed lives of even the most skeptical farmers. 30 years ago, Norphel was laughed at and never taken seriously, but today he stands in front of the camera as a proud citizen, and a real climate hero.