Artificial Glaciation: A way out of Global Warming?

Last December, our Energy Network of ShARE DSE (The Delhi School of Economics branch of the global student’s organisation comprising of top economics institutes) aired a wonderful documentary, “A Degree of Concern” by Fayaz Rizvi, as a part of The Annual ShARE Conference. This award winning documentary shot in 2005 tracks the efforts of retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel of Ladakh, to improve the livelihood of the people in the cold mountainous “rain shadow” terrain by building artificial glaciers through water harvesting.


In Pakistan, “glacier grafting” is a common practice since the 19th century. This involves carrying ice from naturally occurring glaciers to high altitude areas, where it is put inside caves fashioned out of “scree-slope”. Other ingredients like water, salt etc. are also placed at the same “cave”. They eventually turn into newer glaciers and the snowmelt water obtained from them is invaluable for the farmers in irrigation purposes when natural water is scarce.


Scientists debate that whether assembled ice masses are really behind higher water flows. Ingvar Tveiten of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences thinks that glaciers would have formed naturally at those locations, while Kenneth Hewitt of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario believes that the procedure has increased the “ice stock”.


Norphel’s process is different. He uses a network of pipes to capture snowmelt water and other potentially “wasted” water. These are diverted to a shady area of the value. Then it is made to flow out onto a sloping hill at regular intervals along the mountain slope. However, small stone embankments obstruct the flow of water and create shallow pools. Winter season causes freezing of the pools and soon these take the form of a long and thin glacier.


These artificial glaciers melt faster than their natural counterparts and being at a lower altitude, serve the farmers with water quicker than the natural ones do. These are much less costlier to build than a typical water reservoir. For example, the largest artificial glacier that Norphel built, about 1000 feet long, 150 feet wide and 4 feet deep- had cost around Rs. 90,000- a tenth of what it would have cost to build a reservoir.


Global warming, believe it or not, has hit India. The farmers in the mountainous region have stories to share about how the brown patches near their fields were once white. Irrigation in an already rain deficient area is largely dependent on snowmelt water. So in an era of fast melting and receding glaciers, artificial glaciers should be considered as a serious option for sustaining the livelihood the people living in these regions. Another advantage of the artificial glaciers is that these regions turn into green pastures during the summer when the water melts.


The technology has been successfully replicated to build many many glaciers by Norphel and even by engineers of India and Afghanistan in similar regions who learned the technique from “The Ice Man”. He has won accolades from scientists and engineers world over for his efforts. Yet, all is not going well for the artificial glaciers project. A number of his projects have fallen into disrepair due to neglect of the local villagers, who accuse other villages of diverting the water. Funds set aside for maintenance has also reportedly been misused. Norphel found his state funds cut in 2006 due to a political dispute. Worst of all, his most prized glacier has been deemed to be in “inhospitable” terrain and the officials refuse to travel and see first hand the true wonders of this technology.


Although lack of funds isn’t stopping Norphel, he has acknowledged that more funds would enable him to utilize the technology more efficiently. Indeed, it has been proven that this technology works at a fairly low price and it has enough demand. Give Norphel the “one village” he needs to unveil his perfect showpiece, because this might turn out to be the vital impetus in the battle against fast receding glaciers and the water they supply.


Arijit Sen

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