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Artificial Glaciers to Help Farmers

19 October 1998 7:30 pm
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Glacier melt is the most plentiful source of water for the peasants of Ladakh, who eke out a living in a high desert region of the Indian Himalayas. But it's not always reliable. Now a local Indian civil engineer has mastered the art of making "artificial glaciers" that deliver water when it's needed most--in the early spring, right after farmers sow their single crop of wheat, barley, or peas.

Chewang Norphel, 62, a retired civil engineer, has made five artificial glaciers ranging in size from 60 to 300 meters long to harvest water in five Ladakh villages. His technique is disarmingly simple. In the fall, water from an existing stream is piped to a shady part of the valley. There it flows down a mountainside, where it is trapped at regular intervals by small stone embankments. The water soon freezes, forming a thick sheet of ice down the mountainside. In the spring, the artificial glacier melts, and its water--which comes from a lower altitude than natural glacier water--arrives just in time for the growing season. The largest glacier, about 17,000 cubic meters, can supply irrigation water for a 700-person village.

Norphel's work was recognized earlier this month at a National Conference on the Potential of Water Harvesting in New Delhi. Conference organizer Anil Agarwal, a mechanical engineer and director of the Center for Science and Environment, praised Norphel's "simple but elegant technology," and Indian President K. R. Narayanan hailed him as the "invisible rural engineer."

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