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Global warming: Indians decide to make their own glaciers

Global warming causes glaciers to retreat in India, prompting ingenuity from mountain farmers to conserve water for crops.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 2009

Glaciermaker: The Khardung glacier is one of the few remaining water sources for the region.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Stakmo, India

Chhewang Norphel makes artificial glaciers. The reason: The real ones have rapidly receded up the Himalayan slopes in his home district of Ladakh in northernmost India.

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Himalayan communities like Ladakh rely on glacial runoff to grow food, making them – along with tiny island nations – among the first to feel an existential threat from climate change. Mr. Norphel's artificial glaciers represent one of the earliest human efforts at adaptation.

"At the moment, except for this, there is no other solution," says Norphel. But he feels time running out, since even his idea requires runoff from real glaciers. "Everything is melting very, very quickly because of global warming."

The septuagenarian nimbly hops from stone to stone to cross a stream. Below, on an otherwise boulder-strewn high desert, lies the small village of Stakmo in a patch of green fields famous for barley.

Here, Norphel is using what is abundant – stone – to conserve what is precious – water. The idea is simple: Divert the unneeded autumn and winter runoff into a series of large, rock-lined holding ponds. As the days grow colder, the ponds freeze and interconnect into a growing glacier.

Less snow to moisten spring soil

He has built 10 glaciers across the region. His largest stretched more than a mile before an unusual week of rain wiped it out in 2006.

The artificial glaciers melt early enough to rescue farmers from the catastrophe of a dry spring. In recent years, farmers have been planting later and later because the natural glaciers are now too high to melt early, and the valleys no longer get a covering of snow to moisten springtime soil.

"The fields used to be full of snow, now they aren't at all," says Tashi Tondup, a farmer in Stakmo. Some 80 percent of Ladakhi farmers like Mr. Tondup depend on snow and glacial melt for irrigation, according to Norphel.

"We have a saying: If we sow our fields after the 21st of June, they will never grow. But this year, due to late arrival of water, we sowed our fields on the 28th of June. So we still don't know what we are going to get," says Tondup.

Norphel says his glaciers will melt in April or May.

In Sabo, manmade glacier lost to Mother Nature

Tondup hopes the effort will work. But Tsering Wangchuk knows it will. His village of Sabo had been suffering years of springtime water shortages because of declining snowfalls. So they turned to Norphel.

"After getting the glacier, [farmers] had sufficient water to do what they were doing originally – a bad situation went to normal," says Mr. Wangchuk. But the 2006 floods wiped out the glacier and earthworks.

Now Wangchuk has come to Stakmo to learn from Norphel how to rebuild a better glacier.

Norphel himself is experimenting with three different designs in Stakmo – tweaking variables such as using shadier north slopes and varying the 5-ft. to 7-ft. depths of the holding pools. He then plans to train as many villagers as possible on the most effective design.

It will take 20 people with shovels and a backhoe to build the more than 900 feet of rock walls to finish the Stakmo project. The materials are simple: dirt, pipes, rocks – and runoff from real glaciers high above.

"There needs to be some source of water," says Norphel. "When all the glaciers [are] finished, it will be very difficult to solve this problem."

A new glacier: $50,000