Receding Glaciers and Growing Ice Stupas
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
As glaciers recede in the Himalaya, communities in Ladakh, India are constructing their own glaciers, known as ice stupas, that can be as tall as 6 meters and store over 2 million liters of water. Climate change has exacerbated water scarcity in Ladakh with receding glaciers and a faster rate of snowmelt. This has prompted the need for innovative approaches for a reliable water supply. Inspired by the basic idea of freezing and melting water, the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) worked on the idea to build ice stupas as a local solution, by the local people, to the global challenges posed by the climate crisis and water scarcity. The solution is unique as it comes from local communities, and builds upon indigenous knowledge and astute awareness of the natural environment.
The hydrology of Ladakh is characterized by limited precipitation and an abundance of meltwater during the winter and a dry summer. Water supplies are crucial during the summer for food production and the ice stupas propose a new approach to tackle this old problem by storing water from the winter months and making it available in the summer. The system is based on storing water in the form of ice, which gradually melts during the summer to ensure access to water.
These majestic ice stupas build on the application and idea of glacier grafting, which has been practiced in some parts of the Himalayas for the past 30 years. However, the process of glacier grafting is unable to provide water for irrigation throughout the summer, as their large surface area causes the ice to melt faster. To circumvent this challenge, ice stupas were designed vertically with a conical shape that limits external surface area and exposure to the sun. This reduces the melting rate and makes it possible for the ice stupas to last for up to 5 summer months between February and June, providing a steady supply of water during the critical summer season.
The ice stupa team has developed a detailed and illustrated manual on ice stupa construction, which addresses the materials required, the steps needed and additional considerations that require deliberations. There are several noteworthy characteristics as they show how the project design considers the full utilization of environmental conditions of Ladakh. Initially, water is diverted from an upstream location through pipes that are placed around 4 to 6 feet underground, this approach utilizes the ground as an insulator and prevents water from freezing while being transported. The water transfer is powered by a hydraulic gradient which causes water to flow down with pressure without any external energy input. Next, the water is released at the ice stupa site, which is built on clayey soil to limit water loss to infiltration. When the released water is exposed to temperatures below 0 °C, it freezes naturally on dead tree branches that provide surfaces for ice formation and structure to the stupa. The ice stupa construction is made possible through the natural environmental conditions of the region making it a nature based solution.
Can ice stupas solve the water crisis in the Himalayan Desert? (Video from BBC News)
The idea of building ice stupas to address the challenges of water scarcity in the face of the climate crisis is unique, as it requires a large commitment from the community for construction and maintenance. The construction process is labor intensive as it requires water diversion and constant addition of dead branches to provide structural support. Furthermore, there are dangers such as the placement of branches, which requires climbing experience and gear for which precautions must be taken, as highlighted in the ice stupa manual. In Ladakh, there has been a remarkable level of engagement by multiple stakeholders due to the benefits offered by the stupas. The first ice stupa was built in Phyang valley but multiple localities around Ladakh have since embarked on journeys to construct their own ice stupas. The structures have been embraced due to their connection with stupas, a monument which houses sacred relics that are commonly found in Buddhist culture. The construction of many ice stupas across Ladakh is evidence of active community engagement and dedication towards ice stupas and climate change adaptation at large. The ice stupa team has now established partnerships with Swiss scientists in order to improve the efficiency and scale of the project through more research and development.
What makes the case of Ladakh unique is that community based water resource management is not a new concept in the region. Modern water management instruments such as water scheduling and water allocation are embedded within the traditional system of water management. For example, an official with the title of chhur-pon, or water lord, is selected by the villagers to ensure equitable and timely distribution of water for irrigation. Integration of such traditional systems can empower the Ladak localities to take actions towards securing water resources while further strengthening local engagement with the project.
The benefits of ice stupas go beyond just climate adaptation and touch upon economic gains as well. The first ice stupa constructed in 2014 stores sufficient water to irrigate 3000 Ladakhi Poplar, indigenous trees for the region, for 50 days in the summer months. The conservatively estimated value of these trees in the market after five years is approximately USD 23,000. According to these projections, ice stupas of different sizes, differing in number and type of crop present a strong case for their application in Ladakh. The socio-economic benefits posed by water availability need to be better quantified to gain a better sense of the economic rationale before looking into the efficacy of ice-stupas being a viable solution to address water scarcity in summer months in the Himalaya.
The ice stupas also present an opportunity to share benefits beyond just agriculture to the broader region. The Indus river basin heavily relies on snow and glacier melt for water and the ice stupas can be viewed as a temporary alternative to the rapidly receding glaciers in the region by maintaining environmental flows during the low flow season without any additional energy input. In doing so, the stupas would alleviate water stress in the region by supporting spring and ground water recharge, which are other sources of water currently being used in Ladakh. Maintaining ecosystem services has additional trickle down effects on social and economic systems. Utilizing the ice stupas as multi-functional infrastructures can provide additional co-benefits for the economy, ecology and society of Ladakh, including through tourist attraction post the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ice stupas have gained widespread attention for their innovation in water resource management and climate adaptation while empowering the local community to take action against the changing climate. The pioneering communities of Ladakh have received global spotlight through which they shared their water challenges and approaches to climate adaptation. Furthermore, the locals have clearly expressed the need for urgent action as glaciers, the main source of water in Ladakh, are disappearing rapidly. They have limited contributions to climate change, however, they are at the forefront of the climate crisis. The ice stupa project is driven by the local communities of Ladakh and has not just created a new avenue for local voices to be heard in the global dialogue on climate action, but has also demonstrated that local communities can be solutions and not just victims of the climate crisis.
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