Study Assesses Efficacy of Artificial Glaciers in Alleviating Water Scarcity in Ladakh, India

This month, Regional Environmental Change published a study that analyzes the “socio-hydrology” of the artificial ice reservoirs, commonly called “artificial glaciers,” of Ladakh, a high mountain region located in the area known as the Trans-Himalaya. The study assesses the effectiveness of these structures as a strategy of adaptation to seasonal water shortages and to the effects of climate change on the glaciers of the Himalaya, which the Ladakhi rely on for water to irrigate agriculture.

Why Artificial Glaciers?

Ladakh has always experienced seasonal water scarcity, according to Marcus Nüsser, a co-author of the study. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “Water scarcity issues are frequent and an annual phenomenon in Ladakh because of the complete dependence of irrigated agriculture from meltwater, especially from the glaciers.” Since the glaciers reside at a much higher altitude than the villages, “the meltwater from these water sources comes quite late in the year. And so there’s a regular problem of severe water scarcity every year in those months when sowing of the cultivated plants starts,” that is, in early spring.

Climate change has increased water shortages in mountain regions worldwide, according to another study published last month. Artificial glaciers help to alleviate seasonal water shortages by storing meltwater from winter months in ice structures at an altitude lower than the natural glaciers and higher than the cultivated fields. There are several different types of artificial glaciers, which are described later in this article. Due to their lower altitude, these stores of ice melt earlier than the natural glaciers, “providing irrigation just in time for the start of the agricultural season,” as Nüsser writes in his chapter of the 2016 book Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, titled, “Local Knowledge and Global Concerns: Artificial Glaciers as a Focus of Environmental Knowledge and Development Interventions.”

Artificial glaciers provide water right when farmers need it for irrigation. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

How They Work

Constructed ice reservoirs, along with water management systems, have long been in Ladakh’s technological repertoire. According to Nüsser’s chapter of Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, Ladakh “has a long history of water harvesting and community management of water resources.” This history includes tanks for storing meltwater, called zings, as well as an official called a Chudpon who “ensures equitable distribution of water.” The chapter notes the practice of “birthing glaciers” by placing pieces of glaciers in caves at high altitudes found in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan. The Regional Environmental Change study further mentions the tradition of “snow harvesting,” which involves building small barrier walls.

Since then, four types of modern ice reservoirs have been developed, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors:

The types of ice reservoirs, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors (Source: Regional Environmental Change)

Basin structures store ice similarly to how traditional zings store water. While zings are generally built around the same level as fields, basins for ice storage are located at altitudes higher than cultivated fields so that water can freeze. The advantage of ice basins over zings, and the advantage of ice reservoirs over water reservoirs, is that evaporation is minimized and so more water is retained.

A second type of ice reservoir involves building a sequence of loose rock walls into a river. This slows down water velocity enough that the water freezes in layers. This type of structure, called a “cascade,” was first created in 1987 and was the first structure to be called an “artificial glacier.”

A third type of artificial glacier diverts stream water to freeze in small, shaded side valleys. This strategy also relies on reducing the velocity of river water.

The most recently developed type of artificial glacier, the Ice Stupa, was highlighted in a New Yorker photo essay last month. An Ice Stupa uses piping to divert stream water. The water is shot upwards through a sprinkler and freezes in vertical layers in a conical structure that resembles Buddhist stupas. Due to their vertical shape, ice stupas have less surface area exposed to sunlight, and so they can reside at altitudes as low as the villages themselves while remaining frozen through the winter. A challenge of the Ice Stupa, Nüsser told GlacierHub, is that since they rely on pipes, “they need a relatively sophisticated intake system that is not blocked during the cold seasons.” Developed by Sonam Wangchuk, the Ice Stupa won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016.

Reception of Ice Reservoirs

Ice reservoirs are not always successful, according to Nüsser and the recent study. Success depends on “the situation during the wintertime, whether or not ice accumulation is successful,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. The study cites “high inter-annual climatic variability, frequency, and duration of freeze-thaw cycles together with variances in design” for this irregularity.

Further, Nüsser explained, artificial ice reservoirs are only implementable in a very specific environment–that is, a “cold, arid environment… where you have extremely low temperatures during the wintertime because of the high altitude, the position, and where you have on the other hand a very arid situation.” A local climate must include “frequent freeze-thaw cycles to have the successful formation of large quantities of ice. That’s why you cannot use such systems in every area where you have irrigated cultivation.” Still, there are enough places that meet this description that ice reservoir technology has the potential to spread to other locations. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “I’m sure there are possibilities to transfer this technology, for example, to other trans-Himalyan regions,” and possibly to “parts of Bolivia, maybe, parts of Peru, or northern Chile.”

However, as Nüsser and his coauthors point out, support for ice reservoirs is not unanimous. Storing meltwater in the form of ice to service upstream communities in Ladakh deprives downstream communities of this water. According to the study, “There have been protests against the [Ice Stupa] project as it abstracts water from the main stream, thereby reducing water availability for downstream communities and households.”

Presented as an appropriate method of adaptation to global warming, artificial glaciers have received considerable attention. The home page of the website for the Ice Stupa Project reads, “Join Ladakh as it gears up to fight climate change and melting glaciers.” The Regional Environmental Change study observes that although the Ice Stupa Project was the costliest ice reservoir initiative to date, the project was able to receive its funds through crowdsourcing by “promoting these structures in the context of global climate change.”

The authors of the study, though, do not see artificial glaciers as an appropriate method of adaptation to climate change. Nüsser reasonably suggests that the term “artificial glacier” be jettisoned in favor of “artificial ice reservoir.”

“It’s not really a glacier,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. “It’s just a seasonal storage of water in the form of ice to increase meltwater availability in the early season.” Unlike natural glaciers, ice reservoirs only remain frozen for part of the year, and so ice does not accumulate from year to year. “They can not replace the natural glaciers,” he said.

His study, of course, echoes this conclusion: “It is important to see them as site-specific water conservation strategies rather than climate change adaptation, which is neither their original function, nor something they are likely to accomplish.”

Although they do not match the expectations that the term “artificial glacier” may raise, artificial ice reservoirs do, overall, succeed in supplying much needed water to farmers at a critical point in the growing season, according to Nüsser and the study. Storing ice in these structures “helps the farmers to increase the number of irrigation cycles for the cultivated fields.” The aid in water supply allows farmers to “cultivate cash crops like potatoes, in the case of Ladakh, and they can make some more income from these agricultural productions.”

Ice reservoirs alleviate water shortages in upstream communities in the short term, the study concludes, but these ice structures will not slow the effects of climate change on natural glaciers. If glaciers disappear, then there will be no meltwater to be stored in the artificial ice reservoirs. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “In the context of global warming, we have to imagine a time when there is no meltwater available.” For now, though, these artificial ice reservoirs help the farmers of Ladakh and provide an example of creative adaptation to immediate strains caused by global warming.

This artificial glacier resides above the village of Igu in Ladakh. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: Work Inspired by John Ruskin

Project Pressure Exhibition Explores Climate Change and Glaciers

Roundup: UNESCO Sites, Artificial Glaciers, and Alexander von Humboldt

Video of the Week: Artificial Glaciers for Himalayan Desert

This week, take a glimpse at how an engineer built artificial glaciers during the winter season in the high desert of the Himalaya. Named ice stupa glaciers, the meltwater during spring hydrates the barren desert fields to facilitate agriculture activities in the region. Despite enduring cold winter temperatures of below -30 degrees Celsius, the area receives less than 100 mm of precipitation annually. Cropping is generally most favorable in the spring months of April and May, but these are also the region’s driest months. When meltwater from natural glaciers arrives in mid-June, it usually comes in the form of flash floods, hugely impeding agriculture.

The concept of the ice stupa glaciers involves freezing stream water from the nearby Indus River in vertical columns to form huge ice towers between 30 to 50 meters. The project won the Rolex Award for Enterprise, and further support can be provided here.

Read more glacier news at GlacierHub:

A New Discovery: Why and How Glaciers Flow?

Is the Martian Hypanis a Glacier? A New Study Says No

Loss of Contact with Ridges Below Likely Triggered Pine Island Glacier’s Retreat

Elderly Wisdom and Youth Action in Ladakh

People of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent live in one of the highest locations in the world, the Ladakh region of northwestern India. Ladakh extends over 45,000 square miles and includes the Ladakh mountain range, which is part of the glaciated Karakoram Range of south-central Asia. Many in the Ladakh region are Buddhist and believe in good moral conduct such as generosity, righteousness and meditation. This goodwill extends to the glaciers, which they respect and value.

The Global Workshopa project that allows students to create original work that thinks critically about science and development, recently created a video in which young people from Ladakh interview their elders about climate change and its impacts on the glaciers. In the video, the grandparents remember a time during the mid-20th century when streams were full, glaciers were more robust, and snowfall was heavy. Now, farms in the agricultural areas are suffering because of a decrease in glacier meltwater for crop production.

“Himalayan Elders on Climate Change” (Source: The Global Workshop/YouTube).

In a paper titled “Glaciers and Society,” Karine Gagné, a postdoctoral associate of cultural anthropology at Yale University, and her colleagues, discuss some of the approaches used by locals to counter the impacts of receding glaciers.

Construction of a new 30-meter artificial glacier (Source: Rolex Awards).

Gagné spent a fair amount of time working in Ladakh observing everyday life and climatic changes. She told GlacierHub that in certain communities in the region, people depend on specific glaciers, have named them accordingly, and undertake specific actions to protect them.

In the paper, Gagné et al. discuss Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer in Ladakh who created artificial glaciers to harvest snowmelt and rainwater. Norphel’s project brought attention to the plight of farmers who use meltwater for agriculture. It has since been replicated by the younger generation.  

Still, receding glaciers have translated into water scarcity in some Ladakhi villages. Water is a pressing issue because villagers rely on snowfall in the spring to sow their crops. Elders have prayed to mountain deities that their glaciers will provide water in the spring. 

Irrigation from snowmelt in Ladakh (Source: Nevil Zaveri/Creative Commons).

Gagné explained that glaciers are “embedded in the local culture and religious views.” People believe, for example, that there is a guardian deity that inhabits the surrounding glaciers and that one’s actions can reflect in the condition of the natural environment. If one behaves unethically, it could lead to less meltwater than is necessary for growing crops that year.

Using the information provided by their elders, the youth interviewers from The Global Workshop are documenting the changes in their environment and their elder’s responses. Their interviews will help to fill gaps in environmental data extending to the 1950s in an effort to better understand changes in the local water systems and health of the glaciers. 

Many of the youth attend schools like the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) environmental school. Founded by education reformist and engineer Sonam WangchukSECMOL works on renewable energy and climate change preparedness with the youth from Ladakh. The campus is a student-run, solar-powered eco-village, where students live among staff and volunteers.

Students listen intently in class at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school (Source: SECMOL).

The Global Workshop’s video shows the importance of passing down generational knowledge, demonstrating how helpful it can be for youth involvement, community building, and environmental data collection.

If you are still curious about Ladakh, see GlacierHub’s recent piece on climate change adaptation to learn more about other efforts in the region.