These Structures Are More Than Just Beautiful: They’re Saving Thousands Of Lives

These were named after the sacred Buddhist stupas that are important to the villagers.

Credit: Sonam Wangchuk

It was several years ago when engineer Sonam Wangchuk was crossing a bridge in the Indian Himalayan mountains and saw something that changed the course of his life and the thousands that live in the tumultuous region: a chunk of ice that was hanging from the bottom of the bridge, even though the surrounding icicles had melted long ago.

Wangchuk lives in Ladakh, in the Jammu region of north India that extends to the Great Himalayas, and he is no stranger to solving problems. A popular film called “3 Idiots” had a character that was loosely based on his life and grossed one billion rupees in 4 days, propelling Wangchuk into the spotlight.

Once Wanchuk laid eyes on the ice chunk, he set to work on something that would eventually help solve the water shortage occurring in the Himalayan regions and plaguing people and their livelihoods.

It was a critical moment in which the engineer “understood that it was not the warmth of the sun that was melting the ice on the ground. It was direct sunlight.”

Credit: Stefan Walter

In an existing invention to combat the water shortage, Indian engineer Chewang Norphel used a network of pipes to divert meltwater into artificial lakes on shaded sides of the mountain. In the lakes, the water would freeze at night and create glaciers that grew everyday because new water would flow into the lakes and add to the ice. Norphel created 11 of these artificial reservoirs and was able to create a water supply for 10,000 people.

However, while this invention has been very helpful, it’s also been very limiting because the water doesn’t make it to the lower altitudes where the majority of people live and it’s restricted to heavily-shaded areas. Additionally, the water was still melting much too fast to make up for the shortages in the summer. Though this idea was based on the 13th century archaic method of developing glaciers to keep Genghis Khan out, as the natives did at the time, the invention needed major improvements, which Wangchuk began to devote all his time to.

“The ice needed to be shaded – but how?” he wondered. “We couldn’t have it under a bridge, or use reflectors, which aren’t practical at scale. So we thought of this conical shape: making ice shade itself.”

After tons of research, Wanchuk finally realized what it was that would make the ice melt much more slowly than the basins that Norphel had created. Since those artificial glaciers were laid out horizontally, the sun hit more of the ice’s surface and melted it rapidly. With the conical shape placed vertically in a structure called an “ice stupa,” the structure receives fewer of the sun’s rays per the volume of water stored, making the melted water last until June to July, when the real glacier water starts to reach the bottom of the mountain. This is an especially crucial time because the villagers need extensive amounts of water to feed their crops, which are their livelihood.

Credit: Sonam Wangchuk

The region has been heavily impacted by rising global temperatures, as their ice shelves and glaciers are growing increasingly smaller and threatening the lives of thousands of people that depend on the land. While glaciers are rapidly dwindling everywhere around the world, some experts believe that they are disappearing fastest in the Himalayas than any other region.

It’s a simple structure that requires no pumps or power with just a pipe that runs beneath the frost line, which collects water and propels it into the air at the top of the stupa, then runs down the cone and freezes each night because of the low temperatures.

Another added benefit is that the stupas resemble Buddhist stupas, which are religious sites for meditation and worship.

“Because it resembles something we have in our tradition, it is made more close to the population, to their hearts,” Wangchuk said.

The first prototype went up in October of 2013 and the second was placed near a forest with 5,000 trees that stayed watered until the July 6 last year. With the Rolex innovation grant that Wangchuk was recently awarded, he is now working on 20 more stupas that will each be 100 feet high.

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