18 April, 2017

Artificial glaciers to the rescue in Leh

Receding glaciers have reduced the availability of agricultural and potable water in Ladakh and threatened the existence of communities. Creating multiple stone embankments or artificial glaciers that collect freezing water and snow in winter and increase the volume of meltwater in early summer is proving to be a quick and assured solution in Ladakh’s Leh district

Artificial glacier through check dams
Artificial glacier through check dams
Artificial glacier through check dams
Artificial glacier through check dams

The problem

In the mountains of Leh district in Ladakh, a cold desert area, farming is nearly fully irrigated and the source of water is mostly glaciers. Less snowfall and warmer winters have led to glaciers receding at an accelerated rate. Retreating glaciers are threatening the very existence of the people of Ladakh — reducing the availability of water for drinking and agriculture.

Tata Trusts identified four critically water-starved villages in Leh as part of its development projects implemented since 2010 — the villages of Nang, Takmachik, Igoo and Umla. The predominant occupation in all these villages is farming, which was constrained by limited availability of water from glaciers. Crop production suffered due to lack of water during the short growth period.

The solution

From 2015, a Tata Trusts project, in collaboration with the villagers, facilitated the construction of artificial glaciers in the four villages. Building an artificial glacier involves work on steep mountain slopes, with heavy headloads, in extreme conditions, and at altitudes 4,500m above mean sea level. Each household in the four villages contributed at least one person towards labour and work continued for 15 days at a stretch in each location. The Trusts contributed materials such as cement and metallic nets while villagers contributed labour.

A series of stone bunds were built in each village, particularly in the shady parts of streams. The bunds impeded the flow of water, making shallow pools that freeze in winters. The process of ice formation continues during winter months and a huge reserve of ice accumulates on the mountain slope, aptly termed as an ‘artificial glacier’. The artificial glaciers are located at lower altitudes as compared to natural ones so that they start to melt much earlier as compared to a natural glacier, ie, in the month of April, and supplements meltwater. Artificial glaciers have proved to be a simple, cost-effective and unique technique for harnessing and conserving water in high-altitude་ regions.

The takeaway

The whole process of building the glacier was participatory — the community was involved in the decision-making and construction. The glacier-building activity can be replicated in water-starved villages of Leh and in other high-altitude areas to partially offset effects of receding glaciers and decreasing meltwater. Water distribution to farmers is taken care of by the traditional water-sharing systems of the villagers.

Expected impact

The four villages of Nang, Takmachik, Igoo and Umla have benefitted from the glacier-building activity.

Area under dependable irrigation has increased, thus ensuring greater crop production.

  • Availability of meltwater early in the season has ensured early sowing and hence better benefit from the short growing season.
  • Conflicts over competitive demands on water have reduced bringing in greater harmony and cordial relations in the community.
  • The number of trees in the villages will increase as extra water is available. Timber trees are a major source of cash income to the community.

Explore topics

Water management