Sonam Wangchuk, a highly inventive engineer, social entrepreneur and Laureate of the 2016 Rolex Awards, is making substantial progress with his project to freeze excess winter water in his home region of Ladakh, northern India, so it can be released in spring and early summer to irrigate thousands of trees. Using what he calls “high-school geometry”, Wangchuk calculates how frozen water can best be stored and protected from the sun’s rays until it is needed for local crops.
Since you won your Rolex Award two years ago, you have been refining your methods and moving higher into Ladakh’s mountainous regions in your quest to store water. Can you explain?
Wangchuk: This winter [2017-2018] we began building ice stupas in the upper valley of Phyang village, including stupas that held around 3 million litres of water. What was interesting was that we built the stupas in the streams, not just in the desert, as we did in the past. Located high in the valley of Phyang, it became a tourism spot and hundreds of visitors would come every day; on weekends it would reach 1,000 visitors [a day] and once it reached 1,500. The visitors who came from across Ladakh and the rest of country and the world could see ice being formed in a shape that would last until summer. These ice stupas irrigate thousands of trees. On a normal sunny day in spring or early summer, they shed about 30,000 litres of water.
You have a team of young people assisting you. When do they meet?
The ice stupa team get together every November and then through the winter they build lots of ice. This winter it was roughly 30 million litres of frozen water, which is roughly 10 times last year’s [volume], because we went into the upper valley of Phyang. Thanks to the money from the Rolex Award, we were able to make many more ice stupas. Thanks also to Jain Irrigation Systems that provided all sorts of material pro bono.
As well as the artificial glaciers shaped as stupas, you’re also using another method.
Yes, this winter we were also able to take forward the kind of artificial glaciers created by fellow Ladakhi engineer, Chewang Norphel [now 83 years old], who has been working on them for 30 years. His work has been focused on horizontal artificial glaciers and we have been promoting this technique in the upper valley. We are making a cheap version of his horizontal ice glacier method [using ice rather than rocks to dam the water] and this has a lot of promise for high altitudes in the shade of mountains, whereas ice stupas have a lot of promise for lower, village level altitudes without any shade.
Some of your team members have also visited Sweden and want to import the idea of ice hotels for guests, such as those in the area of Sweden near the Arctic Circle.
Our hope is to collaborate with them [the Swedes] to bring to Ladakh the concept of ice hotels. So, if all goes well, in a year or two you may hear of ice hotels in the Indian sub-continent to give a different kind of experience to people in these hot places.
Your work encompasses far more than agriculture and tourism, as you also focus on education, which you want to use to transform Ladakh and even beyond your region. For example, you are revolutionizing education to make it more relevant to local people; and you are providing education that makes people enablers of change rather than simply followers of rote learning, as in the past. You have helped develop school curriculums to change youngsters’ lives and now you are focusing on higher education. Is this correct?
Yes. This time our dream is to create a university that will use all our learnings from the past 25 years. It will be a hands-on university where the School of Business will run real-life companies on campus, the School of Tourism runs high-end hotels and simple home-stays, and the School of Education runs innovative schools. The revenues from these will sustain the university while the students get free higher education and, of course, hands-on experience. But this is more than a dream. One of the top spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism is supporting this cause now as the chief patron. The government of Ladakh has earmarked roughly 200 acres of land. A fully solar-heated university is being planned by some of India’s leading architects.Learn more about Sonam Wangchuk