In the land of little rain

A tree plantation receiving water thanks to Sonam Wangchuk's Ice Stupas   | Photo Credit: spl arrangement

Remember Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots and his alternative school that went beyond mere numbers and grades and focussed instead on innovation and learning through fun? The character was inspired by Sonam Wangchuk, a Ladakhi engineer who, over the years, has given new meaning to learning through his SECMOL Alternative School. In fact, the engineer and his students take experiential learning quite seriously. Which is why, when he came up with the Ice Stupas, an innovative and sustainable solution to address paucity of water for agriculture in Ladakh, his students were a part of the initiative every step of the way.

Recently awarded the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Wangchuk says, “Over the last two decades, our work has received ample recognition and awards have come our way. Rolex Awards for Enterprise, however, is the only award that we proactively applied for, and this we chose to do for a very specific reason. When the Ice Stupas seemed like a success, it looked like we could be greening a huge desert. We wanted this desert to host a university, where young people could be engaged in many such solutions for the mountain regions.”

He adds that for mountain regions like Ladakh, which have not only ethnic and linguistic minorities but also climatic and technological minorities, such a university for indigenous research and development is the need of the hour. “But it was a huge ambition and we needed the world to come and help us. This award comes with massive global publicity; we applied for it to reach out to the world,” he says, adding, “We hope that the global recognition and credibility that this award brings will help us in our next journey to set up the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).”

Wangchuk’s ice stupas have come as a blessing for Ladakhi farmers, who had, in the recent past, been facing acute water shortage in the early crop-growing season (April to May), thanks to global warming and shrinking glaciers. “The solution is to freeze glacial water in a way that it melts gradually in spring to be available to the villagers when they need it the most,” he says, adding that he was inspired by the experimental work of a fellow Ladakhi engineer, 80-year-old Aba Chewang Norphel.

“I had a eureka moment when I was driving past a bridge over a stream in Phey and saw a big chunk of ice under the bridge. At 3,000 metres, this was the lowest altitude, and hence the warmest place in the whole area; and it was the month of May! So, I thought — we can keep ice right here in Phey if we protect it from the sun,” he says. This got him thinking and he devised a way and design to make the ice stupas work.

Quiz him about the future of these stupas, and Wangchuk says, “I think the future is already here and it is bright. In the last three months, we have taken the technology to Sikkim on the invitation of the State Government to drain and refreeze a dangerous glacial lake that could otherwise have caused Kedarnath-type flash floods. We then took it to the Swiss Alps, where we are currently building ice stupa prototypes as a glacier enhancement measure for the long term.”

Talking about some of the other projects that they are working on at SECMOL, Wangchuk says they include setting up a company that builds pre-fabricated solar-heated mud buildings for the Indian Army and the local population. “Similarly, we are starting some experiments on preparing Ladakh to adapt to an era of increased rainfall and diminishing glaciers.”

He says, “Setting up the Alternative University is by far our most ambitious project. Using the ice stupas to green a huge desert, we hope to leapfrog to our next ambitious dream. This project is proposed on roughly 200 acres of land allotted by the Ladakh Hill Council Government. It will engage youth from Ladakh, the Himalayas and other mountains of the world in finding their own solutions to the challenges facing them. We want HIAL to engage our youth in finding real-life solutions to our unique challenges, rather than just be part of a ritual of chalk, talk, and paper.”

The engineer has been working on bringing educational reforms to the people of Ladakh for the last 25 years. He says, “It is my mission in life to see this university develop into a global centre of experiential learning.”

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 1:08:26 PM |

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