The year is 1987 and a crisis, yet invisible to a world busy devouring its natural resources at breakneck speed to satisfy a consumerist society, is making its presence felt on the Himalayas. Chewang Norphel, the first to realise the critical nature of the problem, is a civil engineer. The natural glaciers that dressed the entirety of the Himalayan range, and are visible to the residents of Ladakh, have receded, leaving the mountains bare and only appear as white crowns on the peaks. As a result, there’s a looming water shortage in the villages situated along this belt. This is a great concern for Norphel; but he is a man with a plan. It is his plan of action — of creating artificial glaciers near these villages — which has earned him the title of the “Ice Man of India”.

 Thirty years later, on a winter afternoon in 2017, Norphel sits, with his sleek and shiny grey hair, wearing a deep-blue sweater (that is the color of the sky in Ladakh he remarks), grey trousers and numerous lines that cover the surface of his forehead — perhaps a sign of rigorous rumination. He has a warm embrace and laughs more than city folk do. 

Norphel commences his interaction with Guardian 20 with the story that counts the most in his life: the story of his family. “I was born in the year 1936, in Leh, Ladhak. My family is from the same region. My parents were farmers. And we were three brothers and one sister. I shall always be the descendant of a farmer and that makes me happy. But farmers have a life full of troubles in Ladakh.” 

He has spent nearly all his life in Ladakh, except for the few years of his education. He knows the place like the back of his hand and the one thing he has learnt about the place is that Ladakh is composed of famers. Every other trade or profession which has made its way into Ladakh is only supplementary in its nature, whereas farming, which occupies over 80% of the population, is the primary means of sustenance. Farmers, as Norphel states, have a “life full of troubles” in Ladakh and this does not simply have to do with the natural factors.

By 2012, Norphel had built 12 artificial glaciers already in villages like Sakti, Nang and Umla in Ladakh. The glacier near Phuktsey is the largest one by far with a length of 1000m, width 150m and depth of 4ft.  

Norphel introduces us to the issues faced by farmers in Ladakh before nature went against its order. “When I started working in the 1960s, I learnt that the farmers of Ladakh lacked almost all necessities like communication and specialization. I mean, they didn’t even own the required number of implements. It was this initial problem which we took to the government and gained support.” This was just the first step in the many which Norphel has taken in his life dedicated to the cause of the farmers here. 

Chewang Norphel.

After completing his degree in science at the Amar Singh College in Srinagar, Norphel went on to do a diploma course in civil engineering from Lucknow in 1960. Soon after his education was completed, he joined the Department of Rural Development of Jammu and Kashmir. “I worked there for over 35 odd years before I became a part of the Leh Nutrition Project in 1996. Leh Nutrition Project is an NGO, where I joined as project manager of watershed management.” His engagement with the task of improving rural conditions has taken up most of his life. “My eldest brother,” he adds, “was very hard working. In those days as farmers, we could not afford much but it was my eldest brother who worked hard and gave me the encouraging push to go for higher studies. He believed in the power of education.” 

It isn’t long before he comes to the core of his subject: global warming. The farmers in Ladakh depend upon two main sources of water — glaciers and snowfall. Bear in mind that Ladakh is a semi-arid mountainous region devoid of greenery and receives only 50mm rainfall in a year. The onset of global warming destabalised the entire balance that has kept the farmers, the inhabitants, going for so long. Norphel, with a sparkle of memory in his eyes, recollects the time when the mountains were in the true sense of the words “snow clad”. But that isn’t clearly the case anymore for one of the most popular travel destinations in this country. Norphel calls Ladakh a cold desert which cannot survive without the replenishing water supply that originates from the natural glaciers.  

In the harsh winter of 1987, Norphel stood in his backyard contemplating the situation. He observed the mountains and the village farms surrounding him. He had a faucet, under a poplar tree, the water from which flowed into his backyard. The faucet couldn’t be stopped, since the water in the pipe would have frozen and as a consequence the pipe would have burst. One evening, he noticed something peculiar about the water flowing from the faucet. It had frozen into a thin sheet of ice in the shade of the tree, while just a few yards ahead, the water in the nearby river continued to run without freezing. It does not take a civil engineer to deduct that the solution to the problem may lie in simple elementary science. And behold: the artificial glacier was born. 

Norphel smiles like a child when he says, “All you have to do is reduce the velocity of the water, and that is what helps freeze it.” The artificial glacier is the solution to the problem of water shortage in Ladakh. The steps to making an artificial glacier are rather simple — simpler than recipes of most Indian dishes. The idea is that the water which flows from a natural glacier in the summer must be collected after what is needed is separated. The aim is to save the water which would have been wasted during the later months of the year when there are no crops to be grown. For this, Norphel makes small artificial channels or canals, which divert small quantities of water into catchment areas. These areas have multiple levels of check damns helping reduce the velocity of the water flow. Furthermore, the catchment areas are placed strategically under the shade of trees on the mountains, and as close to the village as possible.  

“You see, people utilise thermal energy and solar energy,” he says. “In Ladakh we have a special energy in large quantities: cold energy. You can freeze almost anything up there. So I figured that we had something in plenty and it would be best to put it to good use. The first artificial glacier was made near the village of Phuktsey in 1987. Around the time I remember, it cost Rs 90,000 to make it completely.” 

There are multiple benefits to this entire project other than it being a solution to the water problem. The first being the cost-effective nature of the entire enterprise. A reservoir would cost nearly Rs 1,50,000 or more. This artificial glacier is built at an altitude of 13,000ft, as it is meant to be close to the village unlike the natural glacier which is at an altitude of some 18,000ft. The advantage of the location is that the artificial glacier starts to melt around the month of April, when spring sets in. This has enabled people in Ladakh to grow crops like potatoes, peas and vegetables which were not likely to be found in the region. Added to this is the fact that Norphel emphasises: “These crops sell for five times the price of the other crops like wheat and barley, which are grown during the other months.” 

The artificial glacier provides water for nearly a month-and-a-half before the water from the natural glacier begins to come in. The project has not only improved the condition of the locals both economically and in terms of necessities, but has also helped improve the water table in the region. Besides, it has caused an increase in the number of trees in the area, and Norphel believes the green-belt density to be integral to the overall process. 

In the story of every invention the limelight must always be put on the moment of it being first shared with the world. This was an idea foreign to everyone and Norphel was just one man, with no practical tests having been done before, to bring it to the authorities and the people in the region. “Well, none of it was easy. People were unsure and the government was not willing to support even in terms of funds. So I tried to force the villagers by getting them to understand that this was the only way to help them. Finally it was the villagers who worked as volunteers every day.”

Upon being asked as to how the villagers could substitute for trained labour and engineers to build these artificial glaciers, he says, “This isn’t really complicated at all. All that is needed is hard work. And I’ve trained villagers before during my years in the Rural Development Department.” 

By 2012, Norphel had built 12 artificial glaciers already in villages like Sakti, Nang and Umla in Ladakh. The glacier near Phuktsey is the largest one by far with a length of 1000m, width 150m and depth of 4ft, The glacier has provided water to over 700 people. In the years that followed, he worked on three more, rounding off the final number to 15 artificial glaciers in various regions of Ladakh. Today, these glaciers are the main support system for the nearby villages. 

The entire effort has been recognised by many different organizations. Norphel received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 2010 and the Padma Shri in 2015. There is also a documentary, titled White Knight, made on his life by the filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava. And he has been bequeathed the title of “Ice Man of India”, having had articles featuring him in international publications like TIME

There now remains the obvious question of the future of the project Norphel had started 30 years ago. “Well, when I had the energy I lacked funds,” he says. “Today I have funds from corners I don’t even know of, but I lack the energy. I am still trying to train people in Ladakh to continue this work. And the glaciers which have been made also require maintenance. Most people in Ladakh are drawn towards the tourism economy because it’s fast and good money, especially the youth. So no one really cares about the environmental needs of Ladakh.” 

The story doesn’t really end at that. The 82-year-old engineer also tries to share his prophetic word on the subject of our planet’s future. “Tourism cannot sustain anything. That is a fact. What can sustain life is agriculture. The whole world depends on agriculture. And agriculture depends on the environment. If we do not look after it, we shall have nothing left.”