Forum > Engineers and Environment > Invisible rural engineer

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 12, 2006


Chewang Norphel, 67, is a soft-spoken innovator from Ladakh. For over 15 years, Norphel, a civil engineer by training, has been building ‘artificial glaciers’ to make life a little easier for the hard-working but poverty-stricken farmers of Ladakh. Farmers in his village call him a messiah. Ex-President K R Narayanan called him an “invisible rural engineer”. But Norphel is better known as Ladakh’s ‘glacier man’ who can generate water and vegetation in the barren landscape of Ladakh.

For his work he was awarded the Far Eastern Economic Review’s 1999 Gold Asian Innovation Award.

Norphel comes from the small village of Skarra on the outskirts of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He always wanted to do something to help the people of the region who suffer the harsh conditions of this remote, inhospitable high-altitude desert in the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to below -30°C. Ladakh experiences long, severe winters and brief summers. And to top it all, water is in short supply. Ladakh is in the rain-shadow area of the Himalayas, where the annual average rainfall seldom exceeds 50 mm. The only water source is glacier water coming down the mountains. When glaciers melt in summer, they release water that is used by the people of Ladakh to irrigate their crops.

 “I realised that all the problems of the region were related to water, which was scarce in most areas,” says Norphel. This water shortage is more acutely felt during the summer months, between March/April and June. These months are critical for Ladakh’s farmers. Any delay in sowing the crop rules out an October harvest, as the crop does not then mature in time to beat the harsh winter. Only single crops like wheat, barley and peas are grown here.

The glaciers begin melting only after July. And so the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of water is made available through the melting of natural glaciers. Sometimes there’s no water to irrigate even a few crops. Norphel’s watershed intervention -- the ‘artificial glacier’ -- came from the simple observation that “while there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, a lot of water was being wasted during winter”.

He noticed that in winter water taps were left open to stop the water from freezing in the pipes. The water flowed into the drains surrounding the taps and froze. “And it is then that it occurred to me: why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the village so that local farmers get a real headstart when they need it most,” says Norphel.

Norphel used to work with the Jammu and Kashmir rural development department making zings (small tanks fed by run-off from melting glaciers). A year after he retired from government service, in 1996, he joined as project manager for watershed development for the Leh Nutrition Project, a local civil society organisation. This gave him the opportunity to try out his ‘artificial glacier’ idea to trap and freeze water for future use. Norphel’s technique uses a network of pipes to capture and channel precious snowmelt that would otherwise be wasted. No crops are grown during Ladakh’s severe winters; the little water there is in the mountain streams generally goes waste.

Using some local ingenuity, Norphel built his ‘artificial glacier’ from stone embankments and a few hundred metres of iron pipe. First, water from an existing stream was diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water was made to flow out onto a sloping hill at regular intervals along the mountain slope. Small stone embankments impede the flow of water, creating shallow pools. During the winter, as temperatures drop steadily, the water in these small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier. Norphel managed to freeze water in pipes as well. “I noticed in Leh that water sometimes did not freeze in the channels but did so in the thin iron pipes. As the pipes are made of metal and are very thin, they lose heat quite rapidly,” he explains.

There are several advantages of an artificial glacier over a natural one. To start with, it’s closer to the village and at a comparatively lower altitude. Natural glaciers, on the other hand, are located way up in the mountains and they melt slowly in summer, releasing water to the villages quite late. Early water release from an artificial glacier comes as a bonus for farmers. It enables them to get water a whole month before the snow starts melting on the mountain tops. This is particularly useful to start sowing, as the sowing season ends before water from natural glaciers begins to flow down the mountain.

The largest artificial glacier Norphel has built so far is near the village of Phuktsey. About 1,000 feet (300 metres) long, 150 feet (45 metres) wide, and four feet (1 metre) deep, it supplies irrigation water to the entire village of around 700 people. Norphel says the glacier was built at a cost of about Rs 90,000, which is about a tenth of what it would have cost to build a reservoir with similar storage capacity.

This technology has become immensely popular with the people of Ladakh, not only because it is effective but also because it is simple and affordable and makes use of local resources and skills. And there’s minimal maintenance required. “The villagers can understand this,” Norphel says. “This is optimum utilisation of water by using the simplest technique, at a low cost. It also helps recharge groundwater and nearby springs.”

As more and more glaciers are being constructed all over Ladakh, more and more barren land is coming under cultivation, providing better opportunities to poor and marginalised communities in the region. Norphel hopes that solving Ladakh’s water problems will help slow down the migration of young people to the plains. Improving the economic viability of farms, he says, will sustain village communities and also preserve the ancient Buddhist heritage of his people.

Norphel’s efforts have been tracked in a film by docu-filmmaker Fayaz Rizvi, titled A Degree of Concern, which was recently screened on the National Geographic Channel.

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