‘The best solar device is timing’

Environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk on his plan for an alternative university and how spiritual leaders can help deal with climate change.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: December 22, 2016 3:16 pm
Sonam Wangchuk, His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche (hat), Yie-Ru Chiu ( permaculture expert, blue down jacket), Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian (engineer laptop), Swati Negi (architect, women in blue jacket), and lamas at the future building site of the University. Sonam Wangchuk, His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche (hat), Yie-Ru Chiu ( permaculture expert, blue down jacket), Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian (engineer laptop), Swati Negi (architect, women in blue jacket), and lamas at the future building site of the University. (Source: Stephan Walter/Rolex)

Two years ago, when the first ice stupa was built in the mountain desert of Ladakh, the youth flocked to take selfies, and the devout elders gathered for prayer. It had become a symbol of innovation and tradition, all at once. Designed by Sonam Wangchuk, 50, who was conferred the Rolex Awards for Enterprise last month, each artificial glacier can green nearly 10 hectares of land, helping farmers in the Phyang Valley grow crops in summer when rain is scarce. Wangchuk, a trained mechanical engineer, believes in using minimum resources for maximum impact. His initiative, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), turns the cycle of traditional learning towards the path of thoughtful living. Currently, Wangchuk is developing a unique siphon technique to prevent flooding in the Himalayas. He starts with Sikkim, where glacial melt leads to swollen lakes. His artificial glacier technology is being sought by the Swiss government.

Excerpts from an interview:

Congratulations on winning this year’s Rolex Award. What are your plans?

Thank you. We had applied for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise with a very practical design in mind. It was to further our next big dream — to set up an alternative university for sustainable development called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL). We, in the mountains, are a microscopic minority, not just linguistically and ethnically, but also climate-wise and technologically. What works in Delhi or New York does not work for Ladakh. We wanted our youth to pursue higher education, and to engage in finding real-life solutions rather than just a paper degree.

Now, coinciding with the award, we have launched a crowdfunding campaign for the university. We have been approached by freshly retired professors who want to teach, young graduates who want to volunteer, individuals and companies who want to make financial contributions.

Today, where everything needs to be concrete, like solar power plants and water harvesting systems, your ice stupa turns the idea on its head with its melting permanence.

Like they say, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Though we have cutting-edge photovoltaic technology, LED lights and Li-ion batteries at the SECMOL Campus, my favourite solar device is campus timing, which is one hour ahead of IST. Students go to bed early and wake up early. So my favourite device is no device at all. Similarly, an ice mountain that forms itself with nothing but a pipe and gravity and then melts away, giving birth to green life, is, to me, the height of sophistication.

Sonam Wangchuk from Ladakh. EXPRESS PHOTO BY PRAVEEN KHANNA 01 10 2016. Sonam Wangchuk from Ladakh.(Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

In your projects, you explore the potential of a material and space. Where does such observation come from?

I like seeing behind and beyond what manifests directly before us. Before I began work on the ice stupas, it was believed that ice glaciers were not possible in lower altitudes, where it’s warmer. One day, I saw a big chunk of ice under a bridge near our school, which was at a lower altitude and in the warmest place in Leh. It was in the month of May. I thought, it’s not temperature or altitude that melts ice prematurely; it is direct sunlight. Now, sun needs surface area to melt ice. Since any shading material was impractical, I adopted the geometric shape of a cone, which has minimal surface area for maximum volume of water, and it worked. The first prototype ice stupa lasted till mid-May and the pilot one (nearly 65 feet high) lasted until July.

Similarly, for making earth or mud buildings, which is my other passion, I was faced with the problem of pulverising clay lumps. Powdering clay lumps is a big job and world over, they use these huge oil guzzling machines. I observed that, in Ladakhi winters, freezing water has such strength that it breaks metal pipes and even pulverises big rocks. So I just sprayed water over clay lumps in early winter and left them peacefully. Natural freeze-thaw action did the rest of the job and in spring, I found pulverised clay powder. So, the answers to our problems are often there, written clearly, but we need to read between the lines.

Your passion for solar power and earthen architecture features in the school. Will the university be the same?

The university and the township that will grow around it will be built of natural materials like earth, and be powered by the sun, watered by ice stupas and nurtured by humans. It will be a place where our youth learn by doing things, working in teams, making mistakes but guided by experienced facilitators. The School of Business and Entrepreneurship will have actual companies on campus, the School of Hospitality and Tourism will run high-end hotels and tourism programmes, and the School of Education will have innovative schools, where students can learn on the job.

Your school makes nature accessible to children. They are encouraged to get earth under their nails. How does it affect their view of life?

Our children at the SECMOL mostly come from rural backgrounds, where all this is a part of life. They actually start feeling proud of who they are, and feel encouraged and confident to lead simple lives in harmony with nature.

Climate change is often contested on political platforms. You have shown that acknowledging it rests with an individual or a community. How did you get people on your side?

I do whatever it takes. I collaborate and find synergies with other actors. I believe some issues like climate change could best be addressed by spiritual leaders. In a country where non-violence has been such an important part of philosophy, I find it strange that we do not see the violence in modern lifestyle. I wanted to communicate that living a polluting lifestyle is a sin, and to adopt ecological lifestyle is not just a luxury, but also a pious deed. So I sought help from His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, who is one of the highest spiritual leaders after His Holiness The Dalai Lama. He is effective in reaching out to the elderly. We are working together on the ice stupa project and the university, which will help young people live a non-violent life in the 21st century.

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