'Ice Man' vs. Global Warming

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Manpreet Romana / AFP / Getty

Chewang Norphel, Director of the Leh Nutrition Project.

Rain is scarce in these snow-peaked Himalayas of northern India, and summers bring dust storms that whip across craggy brown slopes and sun-chapped faces. Glaciers are the sole source of fresh water for the Buddhist farmers who make up more than 70% of the population in this rugged range between Pakistan and China. But rising temperatures have seen the icy snow retreat by dozens of feet each year — to find evidence of global warming, the farmers simply have to glance up from their fields and see the rising patches of brown where, once, all was white. Knowing no alternative, they pray harder for rain and snow.

But Chewang Norphel has gone beyond prayer. The 73-year-old civil engineer has come up with a solution that won't exactly save the ancient glaciers, but it could stave off a looming irrigation crisis. Norphel has created artificial glaciers, frozen pools of glacier run-off perched above the farmers' fields, which thaw just in time for the start of growing season in April — two months before water from the distant natural glaciers is expected to arrive. The slanted pools melt into irrigation channels over the next six weeks, watering crops for villages of roughly 500 families and, as a bonus, recharging the valley's natural springs.

Norphel is known locally as "Ice Man," and cuts a rebellious figure with slick raven hair and a black leather jacket. His innovation has been hailed as an elegantly simple and cheap solution to a devastating problem. One artificial glacier costs just $7,000, compared to $34,000 for a cement water reservoir. Only local materials are needed, and the villagers themselves can build and maintain them. The seven glaciers he's built as head of a local non-profit managing the watershed program for the state of Jammu and Kashmir have won him widespread attention, as engineers from other mountainous regions in India and Afghanistan have visited to learn his methods.

But funding from the government and cooperation from villagers have proved fleeting, and his plan to put artificial glaciers in over 100 villages of his native highlands now faces Everest-sized obstacles.

One of the villages targeted by Norphel is the Buddhist hamlet of Sakti, tucked in the mountains of the Ladakh Range that stretch above the Indus River. Village head Tsering Kundan recalled the rush of optimism when Norphel's glacier was first built in 2001. People grabbed up more land to cultivate, planting groves of willow and poplar saplings between the fields. But now they're letting their man-made glacier fall into disrepair, says Kundan. Villagers accuse one another of secretly diverting its water, and the local watershed committee is neglecting to spend government funds on maintenance. "They're more interested in spending it on buying cows," said the 54-year-old farmer, his eyes glistening red from sun and wind.

Norphel found his state funds cut in 2006 as part of the fallout from an unrelated political dispute between government officials and Ladakh's notoriously crowded field of NGOs. Still, the quixotic Ice Man remains determined to prove the power of his invention. His biggest and most successful glacier is also the most remote, meaning that few officials are willing to make the seven-mile hike to see it. One nearer to town has been reduced to a series of dirt pits from neglect and a major flood. Unperturbed, Norphel sees this as a chance to rebuild the perfect showpiece.

Shimmying down the slopes toward the dry pools, he described the improvements he would make if he just had the money. The headworks at the natural glacier would direct water with more precision and efficiency. Stone channels would be widened so the water wouldn't freeze on its way down. Pipes leading to the pools would be deep underground, and made of concrete, to withstand floods. Water would cascade onto fields in April, and global warming would lose its grip, for a while.

Then people would see.

"I just need one village," said Norphel. "Then I can show everyone."