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A lonely struggle for the Iceman

In Leh, the largest district in India, you don’t have to look far to confirm that climate change is here. In eco-activist Chewang Norphel’s office, just beyond the Leh market, the air inside is warm enough to make you start peeling off the layers — even in September, just before the onset of winter, writes Namita Kohli. How it works

india Updated: Oct 27, 2009 02:30 IST
Namita Kohli

In Leh, the largest district in India, you don’t have to look far to confirm that climate change is here.

In eco-activist Chewang Norphel’s office, just beyond the Leh market, the air inside is warm enough to make you start peeling off the layers — even in September, just before the onset of winter.

“It’s definitely warm for this time of year,” says Norphel (74), a retired civil engineer. “In the past two or three decades, the weather has changed a lot. Instead of snowfall of several feet, we get just a thin layer. And some glaciers have receded by about 2,000 feet.”

Outside the window of Norphel’s office is one of the region’s few remaining snow-capped mountains.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about 7 per cent of the ice of the Himalayan glaciers is melting away each year.

The report predicts that these glaciers may disappear entirely as early as 2030.

The ramifications are immense.

Half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindukush region (which includes parts of seven other countries), and a quarter billion people further downstream rely on glacial meltwater for irrigation, domestic supply and even hydropower.

“In Ladakh alone, at least 80 per cent of the largely agrarian population depend on the glacier meltwater,” says Norphel, who worked with the Desert Development Agency before he retired in 1986 and now heads the Leh Nutrition Project, a local NGO.

“Less snowfall and meltwater are already affecting the lives of farmers here.”

Receding glaciers means the groundwater table is not getting recharged, and springs are drying up.

Added to this are erratic rains and snowfall, leaving villagers to fight it out for the little water available for the villages’ crops.

“When I was a kid, we would have at least three feet of snow in the winters. Now, it’s barely three inches,” says Tsering Dorje (45) of Stok village in Leh. “This year it barely rained, and what rain we got was too late for the sowing season. People in the village have already started fighting over water for the fields.”

That’s where Norphel comes in.

For 22 years, he has been getting villagers to work together to build ‘artificial glaciers’ — a system where meltwater is diverted to a shady area through iron pipes in winter, and trapped by an embankment.

Once trapped, the water freezes naturally, forming ‘glaciers’ that can hold about 10 lakh cubic feet of ice, enough to irrigate about 200 hectares of land.

By early March, the start of the summer, the temperature starts to rise and the ‘glaciers’ melt, supplying clean water to the villages below.

Depending on the size, it costs between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 10 lakh to build such a glacier.

“One of the major advantages is that the fields get water way before the actual glaciers start to melt in May-June. So, if rains and snowfall have been erratic, they can still save their crops,” says the Ladakhi innovator, who says the idea came to him when he saw wastewater flowing down a mountainside during winter in the early 1980s.

Norphel has built 10 glaciers in and around Leh, earning the gratitude of villagers — and the nickname ‘Iceman’.

“When the artificial glacier was running in our village, it was a blessing for us farmers,” says Dorje, a barley farmer. “At this point, it is the best solution we have heard of.”

But the artificial glacier in Stok was destroyed in the floods of 2006. And, as with most of his other projects, Norphel has received no aid from the government to help rebuild the wrecked embankment — or even maintain others that are still standing.

Earlier this year, Norphel finally received Rs 13 lakh from the Department of Science & Technology to build and maintain two glaciers for the next two years.

Another Rs 10 lakh for three more glaciers will come from the Indian Army in Jammu & Kashmir, under its people-friendly project Operation Sadbhavana (Good Intentions), which funds small-scale projects supported by local populations.

“It’s a simple concept that can be managed with local manpower and materials,” says Dr V.C. Goyal, a senior scientist and hydrologist with the Department of Science and Technology. “If it works, then it could be applied across various regions in the Himalayan belt, since there’s a tremendous water shortage across all these hilly regions due to the receding glaciers.”

The Department has now involved the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and respective village heads.

All small steps, but about time.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme report released in March 2008, trends in glacial melt suggest that the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra — which contribute more than 60 per cent of the water for all the rivers of India — may become seasonal as a consequence of climate change.

For Norphel, the solution is in taking it one day at a time.

“I am now building five more glaciers with the money I have received from the government,” he says, as he takes hurried steps across the brown mountains at a project site. “I’m also planning to train villagers with instruction CDs that I have made, so that I can pass on the knowledge before I die.”