My Greatest Challenge: Sonam Wangchuk, Engineer Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk on the challenges of making glaciers in the desert

Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk has spent the majority of his career developing solutions to problems encountered by communities living at high altitude. His most recent project has tackled the acute water shortages faced by Ladakhi farmers during the early crop-growing months. In recognition of the success of Wangchuk’s first ‘ice stupa’ – so called due to its similarity in shape to Buddhist mounds – Wangchuk was awarded one of this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise. With the 100,000 Swiss francs prize money, Wangchuk plans to create 20 more ice stupas, approximately 30m tall, in Phyang, close to Leh, the region’s capital, which in turn will lead to a substantial tree-planting programme.

The challenge of this project is that nobody has done anything like it before. My team and I are doing everything ourselves, for the first time. We’re inventing things along the way, like the fountains, and learning all the time – the method of freezing water from the glacial meltwaters, for instance. Of course science exists on glaciology, but I think of myself as an artificial glaciologist and there isn’t any information on how to actually make glaciers. At least, I haven’t yet found a systematic bank of experiences to learn from.

A melting ice stupa providing water for crops
Glacial meltwater is frozen into mounds resembling Tibetan religious stupas. These ‘ice stupas’ behave like mini-glaciers and slowly release water for irrigation in the Spring.

Ladakh is a remote, mountainous region which extends from the Kunlun mountain range to the Himalayas. It is often called the Moonland because it is so barren. Our location means that there is almost no internet connection and we have to go through all kinds of circuses just to do something that most people around the world can do with one phone call. Then, for six months of the year, the roads become impassable and we can only move within our region. Aircraft can still land but it is like living on an island – you can’t just get in a car and drive away.

Remoteness, loneliness, not having experts to consult – they are not challenges in so much as they are things you expect where I am from. And despite this we have managed to run a successful crowdfunding campaign in these conditions. In fact, I don’t really see any of these issues as challenges – they are rather problems I want to solve.

In conversation with Pip Harrison

2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which seek to encourage new ventures and recognise those who explore beyond boundaries. Sonam Wangchuk is one of 2016’s five Rolex Laureates.

IMAGES: Sonam Wangchuk

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