High on the Tibetan Plateau, a large frozen structure, called an “ice stupa,” has become a fixture in the cold Himalayan desert region of Ladakh, India. The manmade fountain, steeped in what looks like drizzled wax or white cake frosting, stands in sharp contrast to its arid background. An unusual sight to behold, it draws thousands of visitors to the otherwise remote village.
Named for the similarly shaped Buddhist monuments that dot the landscape, the ice stupa is more than just a work of art. Engineer, educator, and innovator Sonam Wangchuk created it to bring a steady stream of water to residents. Its design is ingeniously simple: Gravity pipes water from glaciers to lower elevations. When the desert temperatures dip below negative 30 degrees Celsius, a pump shoots the water up into the air, where it freezes upon descent. Because of the conical structure, the daytime sun melts only some of the ice each day. So far, the structure has successfully provided water to farmers well into July. Years into the project, even its creator is still in awe.
“It’s an amazing feeling every time I see the fountain gushing water high up into the air,” says Wangchuk. “It’s art and utility happening together.”
Wangchuk and his team made their first prototype of the ice stupa in 2013. Now, they’re building other ice stupas throughout the region and the world, including Switzerland. Wangchuk’s success derives from a restlessly creative mind and a sense of resourcefulness his mother instilled in him at a young age. He grew up in a tiny village in Ladakh, so remote that it was and still is physically cut off from the rest of the world during the six months of winter. As he answered my questions in late March, he mentioned that only then were trucks finally coming in with new vegetables and fruits for “color- and taste-starved” residents.
In 1988, after graduating college, Wangchuk co-founded the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, a school that seeks to find practical solutions to the region’s problems and is maintained mostly by its students. Since then, the engineer’s innovative thinking has made him into a local legend, and he was even a source of inspiration for a 2009 blockbuster film. Despite its name, “3 Idiots” extols the creativity of three young Indian inventors. When asked about the movie, Wangchuk asks to skip to the next question, insisting that “real life is more interesting.” In his case, this is probably true. To do this interview, he had to navigate several Internet outages and a busy traveling schedule, and prioritize a water crisis. Instead of one long discussion, he sent short voice messages when time and Wi-Fi allowed.
His answers never strayed far from climate change, or the ways he is challenging new generations to counter it. With the prize money he’s started to collect, including from the prestigious Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2016, Wangchuk has been able to broaden his imagination. That includes finding new uses for the ice stupas and launching an alternative university targeting mountain youth across the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Range to address the concrete issues impacting them.
Says Wangchuk: “We are working on. . . how to continue to live rather than become climate refugees.”
—Teresa Krug for Guernica
Guernica: How did the inspiration for the ice stupa come about?
Sonam Wangchuk: Chewang Norphel, a Ladakhi engineer, was freezing winter water, but facing problems. [He found] flat ice, [which has a large surface area], would melt prematurely if it was in the lower villages. And to keep it from melting, he had to find shade, which was not always available. These were the practical problems Norphel shared with me, and also what inspired me to work on this concept of freezing winter water.
I wanted to freeze winter water in the village itself and keep it until early summer, which people thought was not possible and ridiculous, until one day I saw a chunk of ice under a bridge in May, which meant [ice] was melted by the direct sunlight. This meant ice can stay in village altitudes, even until early summer. That was a great eureka moment. So I started thinking that it’s possible to keep ice until early summer, just that it has to be shaded. Now, how do you shade it? It’s not simple. A bridge is a small thing for small ice, but for a huge mountain of ice, how do you [create] shade? I kept thinking of materials to shade, but they weren’t economical and impractical to shade a pyramid of ice. [Then] I came out of the box of materials for shading, into using something different to shade it. And that something different was high-school geometry, rather than canvas or other umbrella-like material. High-school geometry, you might remember, says that certain shapes have minimum surface area for a given volume.
While the sun needs surface area to melt the ice, farmers actually need volume of water for their farms, so I thought of using not spherical but rather hemispherical or conical structures of ice, which could have that property of low surface area for the volume. And therefore gutting the surface area for the sun may make it last much longer in the summer, while still giving maximum volume for the farmers.
Guernica: Can you say more about the significance of the structure’s shape and why you chose to call it an “ice stupa”?
Sonam Wangchuk: A cone is uninteresting for most people except for an engineer, and we thought, It’s not for engineers that we’re building this. This is for common people, and we should make it attractive to common people, so they can relate to it. We saw that other conical structures, stupas, dot the Ladakhi landscape, and are popular and so close to people’s hearts. So rather than calling these ice cones, we started branding and positioning them as ice stupas.
We involved the spiritual leaders to bless these stupas, and his Holiness Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, who is one of the topmost spiritual leaders after the Dalai Lama, was very pleased to promote this concept. We even put prayer flags on our stupa, because that’s what you often do on stupas in general. Now it has become a site of pilgrimage, where thousands of people come every weekend to pay their homage and understand this sort of marvel of ice. Roughly twelve thousand have already come in the last three months.
Guernica: I read your ice stupas are being developed elsewhere, including in Europe.
Sonam Wangchuk: We hope it will spread to many places with cold winters and a shortage of water. They are mostly the same, except that the length of the pipe and cost will vary, based on the gradient slope. Other than that, they use the same principle of making a cone of ice naturally from freezing a fountain of gushing water.
Here in Ladakh it has become, like it or not, an attraction for tourism. And this year we sent some of our [student] volunteers to the Arctic Circle in Sweden to learn how they make ice hotels in the winters. We want to make ice hotels inside the ice stupas for tourists in Ladakh. Then the money they spend will subsidize the farmers for their water. So these will be beautiful and useful ice hotels, which are experiences for the tourists in the winter and water for the farmers in the summer.
Guernica: Are others learning from and replicating your work?
Sonam Wangchuk: Yes. We’re making tweaks to improve the concept every winter, because this has not been done before. We’re also working on making ready-made kits that other villages can just buy and make on their own.
We would also like ice stupas to become a symbol of climate change adaptation. And people in all cold cities could decorate their houses with an ice stupa made by the children, or the town could make one in the middle of a roundabout. Schools could make one in their school compound to show the children how climate change can be tackled. Teachers could teach them geometry with it as a practical application of what they learn in textbooks.
Guernica: It’s estimated that between 70 and 99 percent of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region could be gone by 2100, due to global warming. Are you considering alternative ways to bring water to this high desert region?
Sonam Wangchuk: I’m working on [how to adapt to] life without glaciers. I’ve already started experiments to see what can be done with very little rain. I won’t go into details, but this is about mixing the sandy soil with clays and humus to make any rain that falls on it last for months, caught and absorbed in the clays—so that it is moist until the next rain, even if it is several months later. That we are doing with some success. We’ve been able to plant trees in total desert, with no watering even from ice stupas, and they are still surviving after two years.
I’m also working on capturing the rains in the mountains where the glaciers are now and tomorrow might not be. As the world heats up with climate change and global warming, more evaporation from the oceans and more clouds will mean a little more rain and snow.
I’m experimenting with capturing this precipitation in the mountains, rather than making it wash down and create a flash flood, which has become a big problem today. When it rains heavily, there’s a flash flood. If we capture this heavy rain in the mountains by creating trenches and little catch damns, then we will soak and absorb this rain into the slopes of the hills and it will percolate slowly over the months into the streams, so the streams may still flow even when the glaciers are gone.
Guernica: Educating youth about sustainability plays a big role in your life. Is there something from your childhood that sparked an interest in sustainable practices?
Sonam Wangchuk: Necessity is the mother of invention. I grew up looking at my mother, how she solved all her problems with a lot of thinking and wisdom and little resources, and that’s what made me think of preserving resources.
She had a complete system where her animals would give her milk, and the food would be eaten by the humans and the animals, [who would then produce] manure for the field.
When my brothers would advocate for buying tractors, my mother would always challenge them, saying, “If you bring a tractor, okay, it’ll plow the fields, but will the tractor give us the manure to enrich the soil as our animals do?” My brothers would be speechless, and that I thought was so cool and so smart. Things are interlinked. It’s all a cycle, and that cycle we see annually, happening at our very own farm, the cycle of nature. I was very inspired to think of the sustainable cyclical usage of resources from, you could say, cradle to grave. Or recycling everything eternally.
Guernica: You are in the process of establishing a new university called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives in Ladakh. You’ve said that you want to shake up the traditional university model, which you describe as promoting a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy, whereas your university is context-based. What do you mean by that?
Sonam Wangchuk: We want to make the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives contextualized for the mountains, because mountain people don’t get any solutions from conventional universities. New Delhi or New York cannot give us solutions in the mountains. Why not engage our young people in finding solutions themselves, with research on climate change, water scarcity, flood, droughts, and earthquakes. It’s a university that answers mountain people’s challenges and not just a degree. Similarly, there could be other universities contextual to deserts, to oceans, to rainy places, and that’s what we hope to start a movement toward.
In this university, it’s all applied knowledge, so 30 percent in classrooms but 70 percent application in the field, doing things physically and solving problems. Also, when you actually work in the field, young people in their twenties can generate a lot of wealth and goods. In which case, why charge them huge fees? The idea is that the university sustains itself on the output of their work, while they learn by doing. There’s sweat equity and imagination, which everybody has.
Guernica: How would you describe the impact the ice stupas have made?
Sonam Wangchuk: It’s a bit early to say. But this winter, in the upper valley of Phyang, we made several ice stupas and horizontal artificial glaciers. Altogether, they will be storing 30 million liters of water, which is a lot of water and can have an impact on the villages below, as the ice will melt and go into the stream, and the stream will have an enhanced flow, particularly this year.
This year is a very sad year in Ladakh, though, because it didn’t snow at all in the winter. People here really depend on late spring snow for their early spring water. There’s going to be a water crisis, and we are hoping that the 30 million liters that we stored this winter in the form of ice will be of some solace to the villagers.
Guernica: Your work has earned you global accolades and more funding, most recently as a Rolex Awards Laureate and a recipient of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. Has this additional support changed your vision for ice stupas?
Sonam Wangchuk: There’s more visibility, and a lot of people are associating with us, [giving] not just money, but their time and skills. That’s a great feeling, to have the whole world coming together to support you.
Yes, my vision has changed, because earlier I was thinking about a small part of Ladakh alone, but with the knowledge and skills and funding, I’m more and more thinking about providing solutions for all the mountain people of the world. They need original work.
And then I’m also encouraged to think of it as something that will impact other universities to adapt and change and to become more contextual and responsible for their own environments, rather than just give a degree after a three or four-year course. To actually be solving the problems of the people. And that’s the trickle-down impact I would like to see in other institutions of the world.
Guernica: As an entrepreneur and educator, how would you advise others who are tackling—or will be tackling—water crises?
Sonam Wangchuk: We should teach in our schools to respect water as a resource [that can be depleted]. Long ago, in industrial times, we created schools to exploit nature. Now the exact opposite should be done with this great asset calling schooling. We should use it to build and rebuild and heal nature. That’s where you have people at their formative age, where it becomes a part of their life. [Don’t] wait to form or bend our rigid adults through campaigns and lectures and seminars.
To children I would say: Learn all these interesting things and become champions of water and nature and become leaders in your own houses. Show your parents they are on the wrong path, thanks to a poor educational system in their time.
Definitely water [scarcity] is and will become more of a challenge for the whole world. To the big cities of the world, I would say that we in the mountains are doing these little things to adapt to climate change, but you have to change your ways too if you want long-term change. It’s your blind use of resources. Your buying twenty pairs of shoes when you need only two. Three cars when you hardly need one, rather than using public transportation or bicycling and healthy ways that keep you fit and us safe in the mountains. I would say to the big cities: Please live simply, so we in the mountains can simply live.