As Glaciers Melt, Ladakh Makes Their Own

Published on October 29th, 2009 | by

Ladakh is a small Himalayan village that depends on glacier melt for everything from farming to drinking water. So what do you do if you depend on glacier melt for all of your water needs and the glaciers are disappearing? If you’re Ladakh region innovator Dr. Chhewang Norphel, you figure out how to build your own.

Photo Credit: Himalayan TrailsHow much longer will glaciers support communities in Ladakh?
How much longer will glaciers support communities in Ladakh?

Since 1987, Norphel has been teaching Ladakhis to create diversions for unused spring and summer runoff in stone canals and reservoirs. The projects take hundreds of hours to build out of the most basic materials: rocks, dirt and some pipes. While he receives some money from the government, it is not all that he needs to make the artificial glaciers what he wants them to be, and attention from outside groups is slow in coming. Norphel remains focused on his mission to teach Ladakhi communities how to take care of their own water needs in a changing climate.

Long-term residents report that winter snows that used to cover their fields don’t come anymore, and Norphel says that global warming is rapidly melting the glaciers, meaning that runoff comes later in the season. There has been even less water to go around after the exponential growth in tourism over the last decade. Over 70,000 tourists visited Ladakh last year, up from less than 20,000 in 2000. Ladakhis used glacier-fed springs to create flush toilets and enable visitors to bathe daily. Now, those springs are dry.

With glacier receding and not bringing their needed water until later in the growing season, Ladakhis are taking water from the Indus. Norphel, however, believes that isn’t a sustainable solution, and worries that if the communities don’t learn to manage the water they do get from the glacier, in part by creating artificial glaciers, they will have no way of life to pass on to their children.

His main concern is teaching them how to build the artificial glaciers to conserve and manage the water that is there- proving that communities can change along with the climate, and we may have to.


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