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Glacier Man

October 1, 2009

Not every superhero wears primary-coloured lycra and a cape. The guy they call The Glacierman dresses not unlike Clark Kent: beige sweater, sensible lace-up shoes. Oh, and he’s 74 years old.

He takes us to his beautiful family home in the small village of Skarra, where, in a bid to peddle the ‘regular guy’ image, he presents his charming wife and daughter and we drink the peculiar local butter-chai and snack on almonds and apricots.

But I know better: Chewang Norphel is no ordinary villager. He makes glaciers.

It’s hard to describe what an extraordinary feat this is. Norphel’s artificial glaciers provide a supply of irrigation juice at the very time the farmers most need it, during the sowing season. We are in one of the driest places on earth here in the high-altitude desert of Ladakh – these 3000-8000m-high walls of Indian rock and dust wedged between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, receive the same rainfall as the Sahara Desert. I have had daily nosebleeds from the dryness since I arrived in Leh, and there are other, arguably more serious consequences of the dry: harvests are failing, drinking water is trucked in by government tanker, traditional communities that have persisted in a self-sustaining way for centuries are breaking up as young people migrate to the cities or plains for work.

Some of this is the result of factors such as the explosion of tourism here, or ruinous government policy on subsidies, but much is owing to climate change. Data are pretty much impossible to obtain – the military jealously guards all such information – but the locals are unanimous in their conclusion: the glaciers here are disappearing – and fast. Most of the small ones have already gone, and the larger ones, higher up, are retreating by kilometres. And it snows less during winter. There used to be 3-feet of snow on the ground from mid-September even in Leh, which would stay on the ground for months, leaving streams and rivers flush with water. Now it hardly snows and what little arrives melts within a day or two, several people tell me.

People here are especially vulnerable, because they have such a brief summer. If farmers don’t plant their single crop of barley, peas or wheat in March, it won’t have time to mature for harvesting in September, before the harsh winter sets in, with temperatures that drop below -30 degrees. The problem is, the glaciers that remain, are high above 5000 metres and don’t fill the irrigation channels until June – too late for the sowing season in March.

In a display of energy and enthusiasm that is exhausting to witness, Norphel skips across the boulder-strewn landscape above the village of Stakmo. He wants to show me his latest artificial glacier design, but I’m finding it tricky simply to breathe the thin air, 4000 metres up. He’s built a total of 10 glaciers, since he retired as a government engineer in 1995, and this one at Stakmo is the newest, although it replaces one damaged in 2006 during devastating floods, during which it rained for a week and the Zanscar River – usually frozen till March – melted early and broke its banks. “Everything was lost here,” Norphel says. But, despite the fact that he built the original structure with his own bare hands and a few labourers, he is not downhearted at its loss. “It gives me a chance to start again and improve on my design,” he says.

The idea for the glaciers came to Norphel one winter when he was musing on the large quantities of ‘wasted’ meltwater from glaciers and snowfall during winter. If only this could be stored, he thought.

His ingenious solution is to divert the winter runoff along a serious of stone embankments that serve to slow the water down and disperse it over a large surface area. He shows me the glacier site, pointing out the path he send the water on until the rocky valley starts to take shape in my mind and I see how the glacier forms. Siting is everything. The glacial area is positioned in a depression that is shaded by a mountain face during the winter months, when the sun is weak and low. The ice sheet forms gradually from November, and begins melting in March, when the water rushes down to a water tanker and through a sluice gate (which is guarded day and night against water thieves during the irrigation season), to the farmers’ irrigation canals. And the slowed water also helps recharge the groundwater aquifer. Around 1000 people in Stakmo and its neighbour benefit from the technology.

The rocks beneath the ice sheet channel mountain breezes, cooling the sheet further. And Norphel points out second and third artificial glacier sites at successively higher elevations. “By the time this lowest one has melted, the middle one will start to melt,” he says. “Then the highest one and, finally, the natural glacier at the top of the mountain.” He is grinning now, and I can’t help joining him: it’s such a great invention.

Norphel reckons that more than 75 other Ladakhi villages are in suitable locations for his artificial glaciers, each of which provides an estimated 6 million gallons of water a year, but lack of funding is holding him back. Even when funds are promised, they fail to be disbursed, meaning he can’t build the relatively cheap structures. Each glacier costs INR 3-10 lakh (USD 6000-20,000) depending on the size and topography (his largest, at Phuktse, is 2km long), which is one-fifth to one-tenth of what a reservoir of similar storage capacity would cost, he says.

Building the structures is a laborious, experimental process. Norphel has no high-tech equipment – not even an altimeter – to help him determing the best location for the masonary skeleton. And, despite his local fame, no government minister or scientist has been to see his glaciers. Until now: with us at the site is Adina Racoviteanu, a graduate student at INSTARR, University of Colorado at Boulder, who is carrying out some research on glaciers east of here. She has interrupted her schedule to visit Norphel’s artificial glacier site, and she’s brought her handheld GPS reader with her. She offers to map his site, and Norphel jumps at the chance. They spend a happy couple of hours taking readings, Norphel very aware that this may be his only opportunity to get some useful data on the site specifics, enabling him to calculate the depth and volume of his ice sheet.

Down in the village, we meet Tashi Tundop, a 76-year-old farmer who greets Norphel like the superhero he is. “This man is a miracle worker,” Tundop tells me. “The artificial glacier he has given us allows me to grow potatoes, which need to be planted earlier in the season, and my harvest is so much bigger. I grow tomatoes and other vegetables as well now. I make three times as much income,” he exclaims.

The artificial glaciers are not a solution to the climate change problems people are facing here – after all, they depend on snowfall, which is becoming highly unpredictable, for their growth. But the glaciers do provide a breathing space for some of the poorest people to adapt to the changes that global warming is bringing. This entire region is likely to become uninhabitable for the majority of farmers currently living here. Norphel is giving these Buddhist people a few more precious years in the homes, landscapes and communities that their ancestors’ have prepared them for, where their traditional songs and tales are set, and their language is understood.

Tonight, Norphel will camp out at the highest of his three glaciers, at temperatures below zero, so as to continue work there in the morning. Heading back to my nice warm bed in Leh, I feel lucky to have met such a remarkable man, who has the vision and sheer determination to change the fortunes of his fellow humans as they face the Himalayan challenge of climate change.

Due to a landslide near Srinagar, there is only satellite internet access at the moment, so we cannot upload images or video. But we have some great stuff ready and waiting so watch this space…

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