Water Heroes: Chewang Norphel – The “Ice Man”
The “Ice Man”. Sounds like a pretty cool super hero, and he kind of is. But you won’t find this super hero up on the big screen; you’ll find him in the Himalayas. The Ice Man is actually 76 year old Chewang Norphel, a retired engineer in India that came up with an ingenious way to provide water to rural villages: artificial glaciers.
Chewang grew up in Ladakh, a remote part of India high in the mountains near the Himalayas. After going to school and studying science and civil engineering he went to work for the rural development department of Jammu and Kashmir in Ladakh in 1960. He retired from that job in 1995, but soon went back to work with the Leh Nutrition Project, a NGO, as project manager for watershed development and later as their director, a position he holds to this day.
His idea started to develop soon after retiring in 1995 while Chewang was in his yard and noticed that water from a stream had frozen in the shade of a tree, but flowed freely everywhere else. After thinking about this for a while he realized that the water had frozen because it flowed slower in the area under the tree, while the rest of the water flowed quicker. This realization led to Chewang developing an ingenious idea and being known years later as the Ice Man.
Growing up near the Himilayas Chewang knew that the local population depends on the melting glaciers for all of their water, but the glaciers are slowly disappearing due to global warming. They are also dealing with the water from the glaciers arriving a couple of months later than in the past. With the water arriving later it is missing the start of the growing season and once it arrives it’s too late to be used for the crops. While Chewang couldn’t fix the problem with the natural glaciers he came up with the next best thing in artificial glaciers.
His idea is a prime example of appropriate technology, and here’s how he does it. He diverts water coming down the mountain into pipes or channels and brings the water to a shady section of a valley. There he builds a series of check dams out of stones to slow and hold back the water which then freezes at night. Because it is in the shade the water will stay frozen until the weather warms up in March and then it is released into channels built to distribute the water just in time for the growing season. Here’s what Chewang had to say about it:
“While there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, I saw a lot of water just running off and getting wasted in winter,” said Norphel. “And it is then that it occurred to me, why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the villages so that local farmers get a real head start in the supply of water when they most need it.”
In hindsight it’s a fairly simple solution, but it took someone realizing the idea to make it happen. A farmer from Changla said Chewang’s handiwork has been a big boon for the area. “The true merit of the technology,” he said, “lies in the low cost and the minimal maintenance that is required for the upkeep of these artificial glaciers.” And that’s the beauty of the technology; it’s simple. If something happens it is easy and low cost to fix it, and that’s key to having a sustainable solution.
So far Chewang has built twelve of his artificial glaciers which in turn have helped thousands of people. The largest is near the village of Phuktsey and is about 1000ft long and 150 ft wide with an average depth of 4ft. This glacier can supply enough water for the village of 700 people, and cost about $2000 US.
Besides being used for irrigation and drinking the water also recharges groundwater and natural springs. And beyond giving the people water it also helps the local economies because now the farmers have abundant crop yields and are able to sell more of what they grow.
Chewang wants to start training people to build artificial glaciers so that the practice can be continued after he’s gone, but will continue to work till that day comes. Fortunately, the Indian government has just given him around $25,000 to build five new glaciers which should keep him busy for a while, and give him plenty of opportunity to train new people.
It’s people like the Ice Man that always amaze me. The people that think outside of the box and come up with simple solutions to complex problems. And even more amazing is the way that people like Chewang often will then dedicate their lives to implementing the idea and helping others, and for that I say thank you to Mr. Chewang Norphel. And thank you for reading.