Educationalist-environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk has won the prestigious Rolex Award 2016 for the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier project in Phyang village, Ladakh. Among 30 finalists from 10 countries, Wangchuk was chosen for his project that conserves water and battles climate change. The awards were announced on Tuesday.
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The Rolex Awards is an international philanthropic programme that supports new and ongoing projects by individuals taking on major challenges to benefit mankind. Wangchuk is one of the 10 innovators from around the world to have won the award in the 40th anniversary year of the programme.
His project, that began nearly two years ago, today greens the trans-Himalayan mountain desert of Ladakh, which is primarily farming land. Many villages in and around the area used to face water shortage during the months of April-May before the commencement of the project. Wangchuk, an engineer-turned-teacher-activist, came up with a solution by making ice stupas, taking on the idiom from the Buddhist environment. These ‘glaciers’ that tower nearly 40 metres, store winter water in the form of ice mountains. As they melt during the summer months, the water feeds farms and allows for people to manage their resources better. Each stupa supposedly stores up to 16,000 cubic litres of water, enough to irrigate 10 hectares of land. “I’m not doing anything revolutionary. It is ninth standard science put to use. We mountain people have to find new ways to work with nature, not against it,” says Wangchuk.
Wangchuk began SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) in 1988 with a group of young Ladakhis to transform the local educational system. The SECMOL School building won the International Terra Award in July this year for its rammed earth construction. The solar-heated mud building hosts students, who challenge the regular school system. “We wanted to help the life of children thoughtfully,” says Wangchuk.
The Rolex award will win Wangchuk 100,000 Swiss francs, which he will contribute as seed money towards the establishment of an alternative university in Ladakh, where “youth from different Himalayan and other countries will engage in R&D (research and development) to find solutions to the challenges faced by mountain people, especially in education, culture and environment”.
Apart from Wangchuk, the other four Rolex Laureates are Andrew Bastawrous, an ophthalmologist from the UK whose team’s smartphone-based portable eye examination system is radically changing eye care in sub-Saharan Africa, Kerstin Forsberg from Peru, a biologist protecting giant manta rays by helping fishermen pursue eco-tourism, Vreni Haussermann, who is exploring Chilean Patagonia’s fjords, and Conor Walsh, a robotic suit designer.