Lion's Roar

“Ice stupas” bring water to drought-stricken villages of Northern India

Traditional Buddhist monuments are bringing life to a Himalayan community grappling with climate change.

Photo by Sonam Wangchuk.

Villagers in Northern India have invented a way to fight drought, inspired by traditional Buddhist architecture. Each winter since 2013, the people of Phyang, Ladakh, have built stupastraditional Buddhist monuments — made out of ice. When the whether warms and drought strikes in the springtime, the stupas melt and irrigate thousands of trees in the Himalayan desert.

A traditional stone stupa in the Phyang valley in Ladakh. Photo Rolex/Stefan Walter.

Stupas dot the Buddhist world. The stupa’s shape represents the body of the Buddha, and the monuments serve as objects of meditation and devotion for Buddhist practitioners.

Sonam Wangchuk (right) tends to one of the trees irrigated by the ice stupa with two students from his alternative school, SECMOL. Photo Rolex/Stefan Walter.

The “ice stupas” are the invention of engineer Sonam Wangchuk, who created them as a way to fight the effects of climate change, which causes extreme flooding and droughts in the Himalayas. For villagers in mountain deserts, water supply is a matter of life and death.

Phyang monastery, in Ladakh, supports the Ice Stupa project. Photo Rolex/Stefan Walter.

In the winter, Ladakh has plenty of water that goes unused. In the spring, the rivers go dry as all the farmers start planting their crops. Wangchuk’s ice stupas store water in the winter by freezing it in giant conical towers, which melt slowly due to their geometry.

Like an oil rig, the ice stupa sprays precious water into the air. Photo by Sonam Wangchuk.

To build the ice stupa, the workers put a pipe in a river, run it downhill to a dry field, and point the end upward. Around the mouth of the pipe, they build a latticework of dry brush to act as a skeleton. At night, when the temperature drops, they open the valve. Gravity forces water through the pipe at high pressure and shoots a frosty spray skyward, freezing around the dry brush. Within weeks, the tower grows tens of meters skyward. The project requires no pumps, electricity, or moving parts, and the artificial glacier provides quenching meltwater for months, lasting almost until the summer rains arrive.

Locals decorate the stupas with prayer flags, which help form ice crystals, shade the stupa from the sun, and break the wind. Photo via Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier on Facebook.

The project is managed by a monk from the local monastery and overseen by the head of the Drikung Kagyu School of Buddhism, His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey. Local villagers celebrated the success of the first ice stupas by decorating them with religious prayer flags, which aid the formation of ice crystals and shelter the stupa from wind.

Builders climb on the stupa — unofficially the tallest manmade ice structure in the world — to add dry brush that will help it expand. Composite of screenshots from Al Jazeera video.

This past winter, Wangchuk’s team built an ice stupa 78 feet tall — unofficially the world’s tallest manmade ice structure. Wangchuk estimates that a full-sized ice stupa could store ten million liters of water — enough to irrigate 20,000 trees. His dream is to build dozens of ice stupas, grow a forest in the desert, and use profits from the project to start a university devoted to adaptation and innovation in the Himalayas, offering courses in farming, tourism, and business.

A magpie nesting in the remains of an ice stupa in June of 2015. Photo by Sonam Wangchuk, via Facebook.

Wangchuk also notes that the ice stupas become part of the local ecosystem. In a Facebook post, he wrote that he found a magpie nesting in the shelter of a melting stupa.

5,000 trees growing on an irrigation system fed by the ice stupa. Photo Rolex/Stefan Walter.

Last year, Wangchuk received the prestigious Rolex Award for the project, which comes with a 100,000 Swiss Franc prize. He pledged the prize money to the university project. Conservationists in Europe have also taken interest in the project, and Wangchuk has been asked to pilot an ice stupa project in Switzerland to conserve retreating glaciers in the Alps.