The climate catastrophe has taken a heavy toll in Ladakh. For decades, a warming climate has accelerated the melting of glaciers in the region, disrupting farming there. The Tibetan Plateau is warming up on average two degrees Celsius faster than the rest of the world, and the accelerating melting of its glaciers is disrupting farming which depends on water from the Himalayas. Eighty percent of farmers in Ladakh depend on glacier melt from the Himalayas to irrigate agricultural land and grow vegetables, barley and wheat, but climate change is changing the timing of the glacier melt, so that there are water shortages during the growing season.

River and Mountain in Ladakh

This means that while unused water runs off the land in the winter months, much of the vital melt has dried up by the summer when it is needed for crops. This is particularly damaging, as Ladakhi’s depend on successful farming to survive, and so climate change is threatening their very existence.

Chewang Norphel - The Iceman

Filming Chewang Norphel

This was having a disastrous effect on farming in Ladakh, until the ‘Iceman’ got involved. The story goes that Chewang Norphel, an engineer from Skara, once was walking in Ladakh when he spotted water running out of a pipe from his home and flowing into a pit under the shade of a poplar grove, where it froze. The combination of shade and running slowly had meant the water had frozen, while the fast moving water remained liquid. This gave him the idea of making glaciers, to help Ladakh’s water woes.

Norphel's artificial glaciers

Norphel’s glaciers are intricate networks of water channels and dams along the upper slope of a valley. In the winter months, water is diverted to the shady side of the mountain, where it is cooler, and is slowed down through a series of meandering diversion canals, so that it freezes, creating glaciers all the way down the side of the mountain. The glacier then melts throughout the year, providing water to farmers when its needed. Hence, the crops get the water they need in the sowing season and the summer, so that there is a successful crop that year.

Norphel’s glaciers have earned him the name ‘Iceman of Ladakh’ and multiple awards. The glaciers are relatively simple compared to other methods and low cost – cheaper than building dams. One of the largest artificial glaciers is 1000 ft long and 150 ft wide, with an average depth of 4ft. Having cost $2,000, it now provides water for the village of 700 people. Norphel was once mocked by the people in Ladakh, because they thought his idea was crazy – he is now a hero to them. The water from his glaciers mean they can sow their seeds at the right time, and also plant new crops that require more water, such as potatoes and peas.

Himalayays - rivers and mountains

The future of Ladakh

Still, this innovative solution can only be a temporary solution. In the long run, the disappearance of high-altitude natural glaciers will make it impossible to create new ones, and threaten the people of Ladakh and others who depend on the water from the Tibetan Plateau. Ultimately, climate change imperils the existence of the glaciers, and this highlights the important of sustainable, climate conscious travel in the Himalayas. This is one of the reasons why sustainable travel is a core principle for Natural Mystic. To read more about our social policy, see here.

We recently organised a personal visit and interview with Chewang for the Formula E team (see photograph of the interview below). For more on Natural Mystic’s location management services, see here.

Chewang Norphel being filmed