Artificial glaciers in the Himalayas: A solution to the water crisis?

  • 2022-08-01
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
Artifical glaciers glaciers replace natural glaciers.
© Shaktiman Singh

Climate change is resulting in shrinkage of the glaciers, and thus also the freshwater reserves for agriculture. The University of Aberdeen is working on an innovative solution in the cold deserts of the Himalayas: man-made mounds of ice to supply water to the farmers’ plantations, and at the same time to make a contribution to biodiversity. One member of the research group is .

The air is thin, the panorama breathtaking. This is home to the highest mountains on Earth; the roof of the world that extends over some 3,000 kilometres between the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. The northern flanks of the Himalayas have an arid mountain climate: the mighty eight-thousand-metre peaks bring dry and cold air to the Tibetan highlands. Scarcely any rain clouds arrive even in the Indian region of Ladakh, which sits at an altitude of 3,500 metres on the edge of the Tibetan cold deserts.

‘The farmers are fully reliant on glacial meltwater for cultivating their cereals and/or grazing areas’, explains DAAD alumnus Dr Shaktiman Singh, who works as a lecturer in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. ‘That has always been challenging and requires a lot of experience.’ Climate change is now presenting the farmers with further difficulties: ‘The glaciers are losing more and more of their mass’, Singh explains. ‘This means that not only has there been insufficient meltwater available for the last 20 years or so, but the water doesn’t even reach the fields until the summer months. That’s too late for the plants to grow.’

Tackling a water crisis in one of the driest, coldest places on Earth

Tackling a water crisis in one of the driest, coldest places on Earth
Tackling a water crisis in one of the driest, coldest places on Earth ©

Research collaboration: ice as a water source

The ‘Cryosphere and Climate Change’ research group from the University of Aberdeen and a team from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi are collaborating on a reliable irrigation system in Ladakh: artificial glaciers to provide water to the fields. Due to their conical shape they are also referred to as stupas, after the cone-like Buddhist shrines in Tibet. This involves the researchers collaborating with Indian engineer Sonam Wangchuk, who with his local team, came up with this idea in 2013. 

‘In winter, the water flows unused from the mountains down to the rivers in the valleys’, Singh explains. ‘We pipe it from the streams up to the central plains, where the agricultural land is also located. The pipes run just over a metre beneath the surface to prevent the water from freezing at an outside temperature of minus 20 degrees.’ The team taps into these pipes and erects vertical pipes at the point where the mounds of ice are to be formed – and the water escapes as if from a fountain. The droplets freeze in the cold air and form a conical hummock of ice on the ground. ‘These artificial glaciers supply the crop fields with water in the spring, so exactly when the farmers need it the most’, says Singh. ‘Their size and shape make them particularly efficient and cost-effective. They can provide millions of litres of water each year for existing plantations, but also for new plants.’ 

Expertise from the University of Aberdeen

What appears to be simple is complicated, and requires research input. ‘The water in the pipes mustn’t freeze, but it must also remain only just above freezing point – that isn’t so easy to realise in technical terms’, Singh explains. ‘We’re also conducting research into the local microclimate.’ Help from the University of Aberdeen should also in future make it possible to create the artificial glaciers at higher altitudes, so that the water from the ice mounds can be distributed to more villages. ‘Different cultures and religions collide in the Himalayas, and most people there hope to benefit from our project’, states Singh. ‘We have to carefully consider the locations for the ice stupas to prevent conflict among the population.’ 

Despite every success, the Himalayas will nevertheless be heavily impacted by the effects of climate change. Globally rising temperatures upset the elaborate climate system of the mountain massif, which significantly influences its environment as the so-called climatic sheath: from June onwards the summer monsoon brings a lot of warm, humid air and huge amounts of rainfall to the lower plains of India and Bangladesh as well as to Nepal and Pakistan; albeit hardly any precipitation falls in the north-western regions of the Himalayas. ‘Unfortunately the weather extremes, and their associated risk of landslides and flooding, are becoming more frequent’, says Singh. ‘High amounts of rainfall also increase the rate of melting.’ Yet the artificial glaciers are not only an enrichment for the people in the high plains. ‘There are endemic plants and rare animal species in the Himalayas that are threatened with extinction. Our ice stupas are important in maintaining this biodiversity and the ecosystem.’

A DAAD scholarship lays the cornerstone for commitment

A DAAD scholarship among other things formed the cornerstone for Shaktiman Singh's commitment and expertise: in 2016 and 2017 he conducted research into glaciological and hydrological processes for his doctorate at Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden). At the time he was also positively influenced by the German work culture. ‘I’ve adopted a more structured and therefore more efficient approach since my time in Dresden’, he relates. ‘Exchanging ideas with my German colleagues, but especially with other DAAD scholarship holders, also led me to a deeper understanding of myself: it was only at this time that I really became aware of my own culture, with both its positive and negative aspects.’ He would also like to pass this experience on to other students: ‘I’ve already taken on interns on two occasions in the context of the ’, he says. ‘Applicants are also very welcome in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen.’ 

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