Making Glaciers On Top Of The World

By Sonam Wangchuk 18 December, 2017

CWR sat down with Wangchuk, the real-life Phunsukh Wangdu of ‘3 Idiots’ to learn about his ice stupa project, CWR sat down with Wangchuk, the real-life Phunsukh Wangdu of ‘3 Idiots’ to learn about his ice stupa project

Ladakh suffers from erratic precipitation & a solution is to freeze winter stream water & keep it for spring & summer
Artificial glaciers are not new but the ice stupa technique preserves ice longer & needs no external energy source
A 'university for the mountains' is also being created to help young people make the HKH region more resilient
Sonam Wangchuk
Author: Sonam Wangchuk
Sonam Wangchuk is a Ladakhi engineer, innovator and education reformist. He is the founding-director of the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) which was founded in 1988 by a group of students who had been in his own words, the ‘victims’ of an alien education system foisted on Ladakh. He is also known for designing the SECMOL campus that runs on solar energy and uses no fossil fuels for cooking, lighting or heating. Wangchuk was instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope in 1994, a collaboration of government, village communities and the civil society to bring reforms in the government school system. He invented the Ice Stupa technique that creates artificial glaciers, used for storing winter water in form of conical shaped ice heap. He has receive many regional and global awards, including 2017 GQ Men of the Year Awards (Social Entrepreneur of the Year), 2017 Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, 2016 Rolex Awards Laureate and 2014 UNESCO Chair Earthen Architecture by CRATerre France.
Read more from Sonam Wangchuk →

SWCWR’s Feng Hu was invited to attend the International Conference on “Resilient Hindu Kush Himalaya: Developing Solutions towards a Sustainable Future for Asia” held in Kathmandu during 3-6 December 2017. The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region provides water, livelihoods, and ecosystem services to more than 210 million people and provides water to about a fifth of the world’s population living in the downstream. Climate change and rapid development have brought inevitable changes to the upper watersheds and ecosystems that are vital for the livelihoods and economy. The conference aimed to identify, discuss, and recommend the building blocks of resilience solutions suitable for mountain contexts.

During the conference, Feng Hu was lucky to meet and talk to many leading experts working on these vast yet critical challenges in the region. For this newsletter before the holiday season, we will first share the story of Mr. Sonam Wangchuk, the real-life Phunsukh Wangdu of the Indian movie ‘3 Idiots’, and his innovative and visually inspiring Ice Stupa Project

China Water Risk (CWR): Mr. Sonam Wangchuk, could you kindly share with us how you came up with the idea of building artificial glaciers? What inspired you, or what kind of problems are you trying to solve?

Sonam Wangchuk (SW): Ladakh is basically a high-altitude cold desert. On top of that, we have climate change-related erratic evaporation and precipitation. That’s our water issue.

“Our idea is to freeze the winter stream water & keep it for spring & summer usage”

In Ladakh and also Tibet, in spring times when people need water, especially in April and May, the temperature is still low and the glaciers only melt very little. Thus there is not enough water and high competition for water amongst villagers. By mid-summer, the glaciers melt so much and there is an excess of water, which even leads to flash floods. In winter, when people don’t need much water, there are still steady flows of [glacier-fed] streams. The problem is getting worse with time as Himalayan glaciers are disappearing due to global warming and local pollution. So, our idea is to freeze the winter stream water and keep it for spring and summer usage.

The concept of artificial glaciers is not new to Ladakh. As a child, I grew up hearing stories about how my ancestors could ‘graft’ glaciers in the very high reaches of mountains. In recent years, a Ladakh engineer has also been trying to freeze water in winter. The difference is that previous attempts are based on horizontal ice formation. The problem [for that approach] is that because it is horizontal, it has a larger surface and melts too soon.

Many people questioned the idea of artificial glaciers, as naturally all ice on the ground will melt…


… but maybe summer temperature isn’t the only factor that melts the ice, but also summer sunlight

Location Screenshot3

In the beginning, many people questioned the idea of artificial glaciers, as naturally all ice on the ground will melt after March. But the peak months of water demand are from April to June. One day, I saw a big chunk of ice under a bridge in May. This made me think that maybe summer temperature isn’t the only factor that melts the ice, but also summer sunlight. As a result, we started to explore ice shapes with minimum surface area and maximum volume. That’s how we came up with the cone shape – the ‘Eureka’ moment.

We started to explore ice shapes with minimum surface area & maximum volume. That’s how we came up with the cone shape

We made our first cone of ice, about 20 feet (6 metres) high, in our school. We put a pipe upwards and let the water flow down. The water pressure creates a small fountain. The water freezes as it falls in a below 0°C environment and naturally forms a cone shape. After our first cone of ice was made, we tested how long it could last. In fact, it lasted until 18th of May that year. Afterwards, we made our first pilot in Ladakh, which lasted until July. This is how we developed our idea.


CWR: To make such cone of ice, do you need external energy? For instance, do you need to pump water to a certain height?

SW: No, no energy is required, even for a big ice stupa. The only limit is when the ice can no longer hold its own weight. But that is way beyond the current height that we are building. We hope to build 40-metre ones, but currently can only reach 24 metres so far. It is relatively easier to make a bigger one than small ones.

If you build such the ice stupa in flat terrains (such as Delhi), you may need to pump water up; but in mountain areas where there are natural slopes and gradient, water comes from the higher ground and flows down. Thus, you can simply place an underground pipeline from a higher point on the stream to the outskirts of the village. This naturally creates a foundation due to gravity and pressure. There doesn’t need to be any external energy source to power the process.

“No energy is required, even for a big ice stupa. The only limit is when the ice can no longer hold its own weight”


“We hope to build 40-metre ones, but currently can only reach 24 metres so far”

ice stupa

CWR: So far, how many ice stupas have your team built and where are they located?

SW: Currently we have only done projects in Ladakh and also in Switzerland. In Sikkim, we are experimenting with a bigger scale project, where we plan to drain a glacier lake and use the water to make ice stupas. It will be a much bigger project compared to the ones in Ladakh, not in terms of the size of ice stupa, but number of ice stupas.

CWR: In Ladakh where you built the ice stupa, what has been the local people’s response? Does the special shape of the ice stupa also make people think about water as a precious resource?    

SW: Interesting question. At first, people were puzzled and found it hard to believe that a man-made glacier can actually provide water. In the first year, no one believed it was possible; in the second year, many people nearby came to see the ice stupa; now it is the third year, people see it is possible, but still don’t fully believe this could be so simple. It is still hard to believe for many people.

“The cone shape is like a stupa, which is a sacred shape in the region”

The cone shape is like a stupa, which is a sacred shape in the region. Thus, we branded the project as Ice Stupa, so people can emotionally connect with this project. We even invited high-level religious leaders to provide blessing and promote the project when it was finished. This, hopefully, can help people accept this new concept and have less resistance towards it.

CWR: Is melt water from the ice stupa in Ladakh sufficient for the local community?

SW: So far until the start of this winter, we have only been using the melt water to water 500 trees that we planted as controlled pilot plantation. That has gone very well. Starting from this winter, we will start to provide water to the local community. We will see how it goes.      

CWR: We know you are the founder of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). You have been actively promoting youth involvement in adopting innovative solutions in the mountain regions. In the process of building the ice stupas, were young students also involved?

SW: Yes. Actually, the first prototype of the ice stupa was made by a group of students at this school (SECMOL). Then the second pilot was done by a student who completed finished studying, as the project required much more time and dedication. Until now, the three years of the ice stupa project has been carried out by student volunteers who have finished their studies at our school. Every winter they came together and worked from 1st of November to 1st April on the project

CWR: Someone may question such human intervention in nature – would there be any negative impacts?

“For every new innovation, you must weigh every possible impact”

SW: It is a good way to look at it. For every new innovation, you must weigh every possible impact, whether it is about strengths or weaknesses. So far, we have not observed any negative impacts, as the ice stupa process doesn’t need any energy or create any pollution. It only changes the form of the water and makes it available later.

Some may think that planting too many trees may change the ecology. However, even if we plant many trees, the area will still be so small compared to the sheer size of desert areas in Ladakh.

CWR: We also see another technology being proposed – extracting water from air. Recently, the Water Abundance XPRIZE has offered a USD1.75 million award to energy-efficient technologies that can harvest fresh water from air. What’s your view on such an idea?

SW: It will be very energy intensive. It may prove feasible for drinking purposes, but won’t be realistic for watering plants. You have to cool the water below the so-called dew point temperature (Editor note: a temperature where the evaporation of water is less than its condensation). It’s like an air conditioner. Even they use solar energy, it will be OK only if the produced water is for drinking, but not for meeting the water needs of a large-scale plantation.  

Another project that we have been working on is to plant trees in desert conditions. There is no ice and very little precipitation. So the solution is to collect and hold the very small amount of rainfall using clay storage under the ground. Such storage can keep water for months and provide water for the tree roots. It’s a passive way of supplying water.

CWR: The theme of the conference is “Resilient Hindu Kush Himalaya: Developing Solutions towards a Sustainable Future for Asia”. At a panel discussion, you also highlighted the importance of involving younger generations. Could you share with our readers a bit more on why young people matter for building resilience in the HKH Region?  

SW: What we are currently doing, also as my main project, is to create a university for the mountains. Our hope should lie in the young people, the next generation. If we can equip young people with the right knowledge and the right outlook, they will collaborate with each other to make the region more resilient. Our goal is more to make the next generation ready.

HIAL schematic2

Usually university is about knowledge, about the ‘head’ only, not about the ‘hand’…

…this university (HIAL) will have laboratories for real-life applications

This new institution is called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL). It hopes to help young people in the HKH Region understand the mountains and choose different domains where they can apply their knowledge. Usually university is about knowledge, about the ‘head’ only, not about the ‘hand’. We want to combine ‘head’ with ‘hand’ and ‘heart’. This university will have laboratories for real-life applications, such as mountain tourism management and sustainable habitat management. For example, by using solar energy, we can keep houses warm even in very cold places like Ladakh and Ali on the Tibetan side. Students should learn these things and make their own lives and their communities better.

CWR: One more question: many refer you as the real-life Phunsukh Wangdu from the movie3 Idiots’. Do you have any advice for anyone who is interested in helping solve today’s environmental and climate change challenges?

SW: Entrepreneurship is the best way to learn knowledge; earn your livelihood and serve [the society]. It shouldn’t be about earning lots of money. It should be about solving a problem, and it should be about something that is very close to your heart. Only then will you have extra energy and interest that will always take you ahead. Especially for young people, do things that are close to your heart and always refresh you.

Further reading

  • Hopes & Fears While Remaining Irrationally Exuberant – Spurred by recent news, China Water Risk’s Tan shares her musings from not kidding ourselves, including that tech will solve-all, to adjusting our goals and piercing our irrational bubbles to bring down waste
  • Fashion Headlines This Festive Season – With lots happening in fashion over the last quarter, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor shares what is making her hopeful but also fearful. Plus, see what she says is forcing the industry to develop a new relationship with pollution
  • Moutai: Risks Along The Intoxicating River – Moutai’s stocks have soared & with a 90% profit margin it is hard not to have a hopeful outlook but China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu warns of river basin risks – best to keep a clear head to ensure future prosperity
  • Aquaculture: 8 Fishy Facts – Think because we get fish from water that its “Fish forever more”( 年年有“鱼”)? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan shares 8 must-knows on aquaculture that will make you re-think this
  • A Chinese Model For Foreign Aid – As the US & the EU retreat from their foreign-aid commitments, Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy see this as an opportunity for a new and willing aid champion, China. See why
  • Yangtze Headwaters Under Threat – By the end of the century, 67% of China’s ice may be gone. Can the Yangtze survive? As temperatures rise, the glaciers which sustain Asia’s longest river are reaching the tipping point. Sam Inglis explores the headwaters, as we march towards an ice-free Yangtze
  • Vanishing Ice: Asia Running Dry – The Hindu-Kush Himalayan region plays a vital role in Asia’s water future. It is a source of 10 major rivers which feed 16 countries. After a month in the Himalayas, CWR’s Tan shares her worries over the vanishing glaciers & the lack of cohesive action to tackle real threats
  • Bara Shigri: The Glacier’s Sigh – Award-winning explorer Jeff Fuchs returns to the Bara Shigri glacier only to find it drastically altered within two years. Sitting under an ice-shelf, Fuchs recounts local tales of “snows going” and the glacier’s “aches & groans” as it retreats
  • Glacial Bottled Water: A Threat To Asia’s Water Tower? – The growing fad of glacial bottled water means the industry is encroaching on glaciers crucial for Asia’s waterways. In China, this expansion is odds with President Xi’s wish for an ‘ecological civilisation’. CWR’s Liu on who’s bottling where
  • Yellow River Changing Course – Prof. Vivian Forbes at Wuhan University provides a detailed overview of the Yellow River’s 5,500km long journey from source to delta and shares how & why the alignment of the river’s mouth has changed over the centuries
  •  Crying Lands: China’s Polluted Waterscape – Award-winning photographer Lu Guang shares his journey in documenting  sensitive social, health & environmental issues in China. See the tangible linkages through his heart-rending and insightful photographs