In a landscape painted in shades of brown under luminescent blue skies, Ladakhi farmers raise emerald-green crops of barley, wheat and vegetables. If farmers here depended on rains like their brethren in the plains of India, they wouldn’t grow anything. The area gets a meagre 50mm of annual rainfall. The secret of life in this high-altitude desert has been the Himalayan glaciers.

Centuries ago, Ladakhis diverted the rushing glacier melt water through an intricate network of canals and channels to their fields. Every village along a stream course got its share, and every farmer received his quota based on a complicated traditional water-sharing system.

Not anymore.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that Himalayan glaciers are melting at a faster clip than glaciers in any other part of the world.

People living a hardscrabble life in the cold desert of Ladakh are witnessing the consequences of this loss. In winter, the region is no longer buried in snow as it used to be. Warmer temperatures in the season send a flood of water rushing down the mountains when it’s too cold to grow crops. Because of this, 260 gigatons of freshwater are lost every year, says Amy Higgins, a graduate student of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences who studied the phenomenon.

This unproductive winter abundance is followed by scarcity in spring, when farmers need water for sowing seeds. If streams don’t flow on time, crops fail and farmers abandon farming and migrate to cities. In villages of Ladakh that get an inadequate supply of water in spring, people have thrown the traditional rules of sharing water to the wind, and squabbling among villagers is common.

Ice reservoirs

The enduring problem has sent several people in search of answers.

Chewang Norphel, a retired mechanical engineer, mulled over it first: How do we store until summer the water that is going to waste in winter? He had a brainwave when he noticed pools of water slowly turn to ice under the shade of trees at his home in Skara.

In the winter of 1987, he created a unique water storage technique in Phuktse village. At an elevation of 4,000 metres, working with villagers, he moved large boulders to dam a shaded north-facing valley. The team then diverted a stream through channels that let the water trickle slowly. At subzero temperatures, it froze.

Warm spring temperature thawed the ice and water trickled down to irrigate fields of barley in April, when glaciers high up in the mountains were still frozen solid. This technique offered one crucial advantage: it required no major masonry work. Villagers called it an “artificial glacier”.

Higgins evaluated Norphel’s ice reservoirs. She wrote that farmers gained an additional 20 to 40 days of irrigation, and some could grow two crops a year and even raise pastures for cattle.

Norphel built 11 more reservoirs. For his efforts, he earned the sobriquet Ice Man and was awarded the Padma Shri in January 2015. Although 10,000 people benefited from his novel idea, they didn’t maintain the reservoirs and many have fallen into disrepair.

Ice stupas

There have been, in the meantime, other attempts to save water for Ladakh’s farmers.

Some years ago, Sonam Wangchuk, another mechanical engineer, wondered how to improve Norphel’s idea. He realised that north-facing valleys are not common, and maintenance of ice reservoirs at high altitudes was difficult and labour intensive. Since a horizontal sheet of ice exposes a greater surface area to sun, Wangchuk thought a vertical spire was the answer. He named his idea an “ice stupa” since it resembles a traditional Buddhist mud stupa.

Phyang, a village of 2,000 subsistence farmers at 3,500 metres above sea level, has vast fields left uncultivated from lack of water. In January 2015, Wangchuk embarked on building an ambitious 30-metre-tall ice stupa that could release 10 million litres of water between April and mid-June.

Hundreds of volunteers – villagers, monks from the nearby Phyang monastery and soldiers from the Indian Army – worked hard in the cold to lay a 2.5-km pipeline from River Phyang. Wangchuk raised Rs 75 lakh from donations to make the project happen.

Once it was completed, river water gushed through the pipe driven by gravity, and sprinklers sprayed fine jets of water on denuded bunches of sea buckthorn bushes. This was done since creating a block of ice is not as simple as letting water flow out of a tap. Ice doesn’t form easily even if the air temperature is below freezing. The sea buckthorn plants splatter the water into tiny droplets that freeze in the wind – a process Wangchuk calls seeding.

As layer after layer of ice formed, the stupa resembled the drippings of a gigantic wax candle. By the end of winter, 2 million litres of water had solidified into an ice stupa that stood 20 metres tall, much shorter than the planned 30 metres. But it dwarfed the Guinness World Record holder, in the city of Yichun, China, for the tallest man-made ice structure by more than 3 metres.

Traditional zings

An engineer based in Ladakh who doesn’t want to be named said, “Wangchuk claims the ice stupa stores more than 1.5 million litres [of water]. If you calculate, it’s much less than that. At least one-third of the cone is something else – air, bushes and pipes. All that takes away from the total.”

Wangchuk estimates he can build 80 to 90 ice stupas in Phyang that would produce 1 billion litres of water to green 600 hectares of desert. “The main cost is to bring the pipes, he said. “It has to be extended farther and farther, so more pipes are needed. It will cost another $100,000 (over Rs 60 lakh) for 80 stupas. The capital cost of infrastructure per litre is Rs 0.025. Water is free ever after.”

The engineer-critic disagrees. “There’s an old method of construction used by Ladakhis called water reservoirs or zings that are more cost effective. A zing of 15 metres x 15 metres x 12 metres has triple the storage capacity of an ice stupa. It can provide water more effectively, not only in winter, but also in spring and summer. You are not depending on seasons.”

Only time will tell which method – the traditional or the innovation – better solves the water crisis.

A six-metre-tall prototype of ice stupa built in the winter of 2013 lasted till May 18, 2014 – 18 days longer than expected, melting five times slower than a frozen pond. The current ice stupa is expected to last longer. On May Day, Wangchuk said of his creation: “It’s producing 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water a day.”

Artificial glaciers cannot replace the real ones. When they disappear, not only will the people of Ladakh be in trouble, but so would the food security of 70 million people. But for now, man-made greenery will compete with the natural browns of the desert.