Triggered by glacial reduction in the valley, the village of Kulum, situated 50 km south-east of Leh, was abandoned in 2012, as the residents moved to the nearby town of Upshi owing to water scarcity. The migration also forced the families to leave their traditional agrarian practices and work as daily wagers or run utility shops to make ends meet. In fact, with increasing average temperatures and shrinking glaciers, several villages in Ladakh have turned into ghost towns with abandoned but habitable houses and wasted agricultural land.
This gives rise to three major issues in the recently carved union territory — low indoor temperatures in buildings, a shift from the original agrarian-based economy and migration of the youth. To address these issues, the government, through the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, joined hands with the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) in November 2019, for research, documentation and development of the tribal communities of Ladakh.
“The project has become a model of collaborative effort between local people, organisations with expertise in this area, NGOs and the government,” says a statement by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. One of the components of the project is ‘ Rehabilitation of Abandoned Villages through Ice Stupas’.
Ice Stupa is a form of glacier grafting technique that creates artificial glaciers, used for storing winter water (which otherwise would go unused) in the form of conical shaped ice heaps. During summer, when water is scarce, the Ice Stupa melts to increase water supply for crops. Ice Stupa was invented by engineer, innovator and education reformist Sonam Wangchuk, who is the founder-director of the NGO Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL).
The first prototype Ice Stupa was made at the SECMOL school in the winters of 2013. Wangchuk says, “Taking inspiration from ancestral practices and veteran Ladakhi civil engineer Chewang Norphel’s work on artificial glaciers, Ice Stupas have been designed at various locations across Ladakh ever since. ”
With the combined efforts of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and SECMOL, the project has come a long way. While there was an Ice Stupa in one village in 2013-14, the expertise expanded to 26 locations across Ladakh in 2019-20 after the government chipped in.
This year, the project started from the village of Kulum. It was implemented over a period of four months between November 2019 and February 2020 , and was completed with the help of residents of Kulum (locally called Kulumpas). ” This provided them hands-on experience of the process, thus inducing active participation at all stakeholder levels,” adds Wangchuk.
He explains that by the end of the building season, the Ice Stupa structure was able to conserve 3,00,000 litres of water. Even though the structure melted away in April, it provided much-needed water for the fields of Kulum.