This engineer has come up with an awe-inspiring method of providing freshwater to his village during the dry season.

Sonam Wangchuck is an engineer who lives in Ladakh: a village that sits 11,500 feet up in the southern Himalayas.

Wangchuck Sonam won the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise 2016 Laureate..
Wangchuck Sonam won the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise.
Photograph: Stefan Walter/Rolex Awards


Since the village depends on mountain glacial runoff as their primary source of freshwater, Ladakh struggles with drought in the springtime. Combined with the effects of climate change, the region has often been at the mercy of nature.

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That is until Sonam created the village’s first ice stupa – also known as an ice pyramid, or an artificial glacier.

Wangchuk is not the first to try to wring a more sustainable water supply from the mountains. For centuries, inhabitants of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges have practiced “glacier grafting”, chipping away at existing ice and pooling the pieces at higher altitudes, hoping to create new glaciers that can supply streams throughout the growing season. Apocryphally, villagers in the 13thcentury “grew” such glaciers across mountain passes to stop the advance of Genghis Khan.

More than a decade ago, another Indian engineer devised an update. Chewang Norphel earned the nickname the “iceman of Ladakh” by using a network of pipes to divert meltwater into artificial lakes on shaded sides of the mountain. The water would freeze at night, creating glaciers that grew each day as new water flowed into the basin. Norphel created 11 reservoirs that supplied water to 10,000 people.

“The problem was that it couldn’t be done in lower altitudes, where people actually live,” says Wangchuk. The lakes were also restricted to heavily shaded areas, and simply melted too quickly to make up for the shortfall in water wrought by increasing temperatures. Adapting the concept became Wangchuck’s obsession. The auspicious chunk of ice on the bridge showed him how that could be done.

“The ice needed to be shaded – but how?” he says. “We couldn’t have it under a bridge, or use reflectors, which aren’t practical at scale. So we thought of this conical shape: making ice shade itself.”

Sonam created a pipeline that ran from the freshwater sources over a mile up in the mountains, all the way down to the village. During the winter, the pipeline would pour gallons of water into a kind of stationary sprinkler system. As the water was sprayed into the 0 degrees Fahrenheit air, it would eventually keep building and freezing on top of itself until it made a pyramid.

Because ice melts more slowly if it is a part of a larger surface area, the pyramid was able to provide Ladakh with over 1.5 million liters of fresh water through the dry spring months up until late July.

In 2015, Ladakhi villagers were able to plant over 5,000 saplings using water from the ice stupa, resulting in the creation of a desert oasis capable of surviving all weather conditions.

A view of the Phyang monastery in Ladakh.

A view of the Phyang monastery in Ladakh. Photograph: Stefan Walter/Rolex Awards

Thanks to the innovation of his design, Sonam was a 2016 Rolex Award Laureate. The engineer plans on using his $100,000 cash prize to establish a tree-planting program with the addition of 20 more stupas in Ladakh, each 100 feet high, thus providing over 10 million more liters of fresh water to the village.

He will also use the money to fund an “alternative university” in Ladakh to train young people to see in their surroundings answers to the region’s problems. “Solutions for the mountains, by the mountain people,” he says.

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