The 74 year old retired civil engineer, Chewang Norphel is fondly known as the Glacier Man of Ladakh. Coming from a middle class family of Leh, Norphel joined the Rural Development Department of Jammu and Kashmir in Ladakh (1960) as a civil engineer.
Are the glaciers in Ladakh declining – at what rate?
Yes! Undeniably the small glaciers in Ladakh are on the verge of disappearance. If the current rate of melting and shrinking of glaciers continues the region of Ladakh would sure be the first on the planet earth to suffer the brunt of global warming. Although no scientific work has yet been done to measure the loss of glaciers around the region, yet people, based on their generation of experience and observations of the glaciers all around Ladakh apprehend disappearance of the glaciers within decades in case the rapid recession rate continues in future. It would certainly be a blunder if this dangerous climatic trend is brushed aside attributing it to year to year variation in weather.
You have been titled the Glacier Man – how did you create a glacier?
Artificial glacier, which I innovated about two decades ago, is a simple and cheap technology suited for any region with similar geoclimatic and topographical context. Its a technique for water conservation at high elevations and thereby slowing down of glacial melt – thus bringing life to cold deserts, renewing the traditional heritage of sustainability. Water during 6-7 winter months is drained into river and go waste in absence of any agriculture activity due to the intensely cold weather. The waste water is diverted at higher altitude: 4500 meters to 5000 meters to a ridge with a wide slope and through a network of appropriately designed structures the water is made to flow in small quantities down the ridge. Over a period of 6-7 winter months huge reserves of solid ice is formed all along the ridge down to a few thousand meter gorge below, aptly called ‘artificial glacier’. The Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), a Leh based NGO, that I am associated with for more than a decade, has received some support from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India for artificial glaciers.
Has the Government of India supported any similar projects in the area?
No other agency has received any support from the Government of India exclusively for similar projects.
Have you seen a change in the usage of water in Ladakh?
With the increase in population and a market driven economy there is greater demand for water. Due to inadequate and irregular precipitation and inadequacy of surface water people have started exploring groundwater potential. Lots of measures are also being taken by the Government for harvesting every drop of water for sustainable use.
Is there also an accompanying change in occupation?
Many people in the villages find agriculture has become uneconomical and unviable, leading to diminishing land utilisation and crop productivity due to a number of factors. Many people migrate in search of alternate employment opportunities.
What is the way forward?
A community based region specific water conservation strategy is the need of the hour. Also, adequate recourses need to be provided to the communities to mobilise and activate their interest in utilising resources for water management, conservation and utilisation.