Kashmir's Himalayan 'Ice-man'

23 October 2009
Al Jazeera

Not Specified: The lives of millions of people are being put at risk by rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayas. But one man is hoping his plan will help avert disaster. High in the mountains above the town of Leh, more than 3,500m above sea water in the northeastern tip of Kashmir, the air is thin and pinches your chest when you breathe. It is hard to walk without running short of breath. But despite his years, the old man leading us up the hill does it with ease. His name is Chewang Norphel and they call him 'the Ice-man'. The Ice-man gets his name from the task he undertakes in villages right across this part of the Himalayas building artificial glaciers. The reality is that the glaciers are melting and every year another ice sheet disappears, leaving great gaping gauges in between mountains. 'Due to changes in climate nearly all of the glaciers here have disappeared,' says Norphel. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 all of the Himalayan glaciers will melt, causing a potential catastrophe for the millions of people living downstream in the Ganges River basin. Buying some time Near the village of Stokmo, Norphel walks up the mountain passing local farmers. All of them have a friendly wave for the Ice-man. He is considered a hero in these parts. One farmer pauses in the barley field to tell us about the man-made glaciers: 'This is of great help to us, there was a huge shortage of water here ... because of this [artificial glaciers], now we get water.' Leading Al Jazeera a few hundred metres higher, Norphel surveys his latest masterpiece, which consists of a three-tiered system of hillside retaining walls. By the end of winter, they will have morphed into artificial glaciers. Each reservoir is built at a slightly different altitude, positioned in strategic locations so that they will melt at precisely the right moment, ensuring water for the planting and successful cultivation of crops in the village below. 'This is where the water gathers,' he says, pointing to the lowest retaining wall. 'And this is where we're diverting the path of the water.' He waves an arm up the hill toward some of the workers moving rocks and earth at feverish pace. Ensuring community survival It is an impressive operation, in part because of the simplicity of the idea. It is a cheap, effective and sustainable way of ensuring the continued survival of this community. Each artificial glacier only costs a few thousand US dollars to build. Charity groups have been funding the projects so far, but now the local government is contributing too. This is a community success story. It is worth remembering though that this is ultimately a race against time. The Ganges basin is the most populated river basin in the world. Some estimates put the number of people living in the region at 400 million. If parts of the river dry up it would have serious implications, but little is being done to avert disaster. A few dozen man-made glaciers may help small communities survive, but it seems nothing will save the massive Himalayan glaciers.