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Thursday, October 29, 1998

A Ladakh villager makes artificial glaciers to harvest water

Pallava Bagla  
NEW DELHI, Oct 28: Chewang Norphel, 62, may not get a Nobel Prize for his innovation but what he has done in Ladakh is firmly based on the principles of Senian welfare economics. A rustic man and a civil engineer by training, Norphel has been making artificial glaciers to make life easier for the hard working but terribly poverty-stricken peasants of Ladakh.

For his achievement, Norphel could even find a place in the Guinness Book of Records as experts acknowledge that it's probably for the first time that someone has made artificial glaciers.

Perched high up in the remote cold deserts of the Himalayas, Norphel has mastered -- over the last decade or so -- the art of making and harvesting artificial glaciers. Using nothing more than a few hundred metres of iron pipes, stone embankments, a little knowledge of high school physics and a whole lot of local ingenuity, the retired employee of the J&K Rural Development Department has made five artificial glaciers to harvest water for as many villages ofLadakh. As the days become shorter and the winter sets in once again this year, Norphel's experiment will be once again put to test.

In the cold desert that Ladakh is, water is at a premium, especially during the sowing season of March-April when there is hardly any to irrigate crops with. Ladakhi peasants -- who harvest only one crop a year of wheat, barley or peas -- depend solely on high altitude glacier melt to supply the water as it seldom rains in this `desert in the skies'. The cropping window is also a short six months before severe winter sets in October. Any delay in crop sowing can completely wipe out the crop as it fails to mature on time.

In fact, occasional delays do happen because of a late rise in summer temperatures resulting in poor runoff from glaciers. ``I saw a lot of water just running off and getting wasted in winter, while there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season and it is then that it occurred to me why not try and make artificial glaciers in thevicinity of the villages so that villagers get a real head-start in the supply of water when they most need it,'' says Norphel.

Today, when large dams, wide canals and millions of dollars of World Bank loans are the in-thing to meet the irrigation needs, Norphel's technique is remarkable in its simplicity. Water from an existing stream is diverted using iron pipes to a comparably shady part of the valley and here the water is allowed to flow out onto an inclined mountainside. At regular intervals along the slope of the mountain, small embankments of stone are made which impede the flow of water making shallow pools. At the start of winter, water is allowed to flow into this `masonry contraption' and as the winter temperatures are constantly falling the water freezes forming a thick sheet of ice looking almost like a thin, long glacier.

The largest artificial glacier is the one at village Phuktsey which is about 1,000 ft in length and about 150 ft wide and has an average depth of about 4 ft and it cansupply irrigation water for the entire village of about 700 people, says Norphel and according to him, it cost only about Rs 90,000 to make. ``There is no doubt that this simple but elegant technology helps the villagers to get an assured supply of water early in the season when they most need it,'' says Anil Agarwal, director of the Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

Vikram Chandra Thakur, a geologist and director of The Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun and a frequent traveller to Ladakh says: ``I have not visited the site but if it is successful it is a remarkable achievement and I have never heard of an example like this from any where else in the world.'' He, however, cautions that calling it an ``artificial glacier'' may be a misnomer and it may be more appropriate to call it a long `frozen water body' and excitedly says that the next time he visits Ladakh a stop at the spot of the artificial glacier will be a must.

The soft-spoken and shy innovator from Ladakh is hardlylooking for publicity for this ``remarkable feat''. When approached to talk about his work, Norphel was as withdrawn as the Yeti. In this age of publicity-conscious, jet-setting scientists, Norphel seems an exception. At the age of 62, he attended his first international conference only this month.

(Pallava Bagla is the India correspondent of SCIENCE)

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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