Sonam Wangchuk Man behind functional art ‘Ice Stupa’

Sunny Dua
When ecological imbalances caused due to global warming are making icebergs to break away and glaciers to recede thereby raising water levels in seas and also triggering unpredictable cloudbursts, floods or draughts, finding a way to conserve water is definitely a Eureka Moment! This moment came into the life of 1966 born engineer Sonam Wangchuk who noticed ice mass beneath a bridge that too in the month of May, a time when most of the snow usually melts away but the water is needed for farming in Ladakh, known as Cold Desert of Jammu and Kashmir State.
The site gave him idea of accumulating ice in a way that it’s minimum surface area could hold maximum volume of water. ‘Inverted cone’ was first shape he thought of making out of ice and then his work led him to making of a functional ‘ice art’ called ‘Stupa’. This name was religiously associated with Ladakh, had a shape of inverted cone, required simple skills and needed no machines to make. The idea was converted into action and the first 20 feet high ‘Ice Stupa’ was created in Leh in October 2013 by using gravitational forces and no machines.
Wangchuk first located a source of water on a hill. He connected pipes to the source and let the water flow down by gravity and erected a vertical pipe fitted with sprinkler on its top end at the site. Around this pipe a skeleton of Stupa was created by using some bushes. The water through the nozzle of sprinkler was let go off in the evening hours. This water because of low temperature lost its latent heat and started freezing in the shape of stalagmites and stalactite which clubbed together formed a huge cone shaped structure named ‘Stupa’. This lasted till June and served the purpose of water conservation only to be used for farming.
Born in village Uleytokpo, Alchi of district Leh, Ladakh Rolex award winner Sonam Wangchuk said that these ‘Ice Stupas’ retain water and don’t melt away in Sun easily. While these ‘Stupas’ have started catering to water needs of farmers of cold desert, tourists too have started enjoying Coffee shops built inside these Stupas while others have found adventure in climbing these ‘Ice Arts’ that are visible in the cold desert from a long distance and remain intact till late summers.
He claimed that ‘Ice Man’ Padam Shri Chhewang Norphel from Ladakh was already practicing water conservation techniques but ice accumulated on flat surfaces used to melt away well before summers. However, science clubbed with creative idea made things happen as per the needs. He said, ‘Ladakh gets less rainfall and agriculturists primarily depend upon glacier waters which during spring dries up. This new technique has given them reasons to be jubilant for sowing seeds during spring days because they now get water for the purpose from these Stupas.
Alma mater of National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, Wangchuk believes in functional studies and had set up Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988. Reason behind such a school that laid more stress on imparting practical knowledge than academics was that he had realised children cramming up syllabus without getting to understand it. The knowledge being imparted in schools was doing no good to students but putting them under stress and in the end failing many of them. He took all failed students in his school and made them work on different projects like tapping solar energy, learning photography or building water conservation projects.
The engineer, innovator, educationist, reformist and a motivator Wangchuk not only produced best of the talent but also elated the spirit of students who started believing in themselves. This was a real transformation that now has given him confidence to start Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL) University in cold desert for which modalities stand worked out. The university will have dedicated courses to study climate change and sustainable tourism.
SECMOL campus is designed in a way that it’s self reliant and doesn’t depend upon fossil fuel. Cooking, lighting or heating in the school is all done using Solar energy that keeps students warm even in minus 30 degree temperatures.
Sonam Wangchuk who himself was not enrolled in a school until the age of 9 year was taught by his mother. His concept of university studies is also going to be on the pattern of SECMOL where students will be having practical studies to preserve and protect Ladakh region besides save its flora and fauns. His latest creation is 110 feet high Ice Stupa in village Shara. Gusiness record holder for highest manmade ice structure has also gone to Sonam’s work of ice art. Some Ice Stupa can store 150,000 litres of water in the form of ice without any shade from the Sun.
The idea has so well picked up that many competitions are being held in Ladakh to encourage villagers to construct ‘Ice Stupas’ and conserve water. This is making people get involved and about 14 villagers have so far constructed these ice stupas. The idea is picking up in neighbouring Pakistan as well as Switzerland and other places around the globe that get good snow but doesn’t have water.
After giving Ladakh a School and Stupa science, Sonam Wangchuk is now trying to plant trees and make cold desert green. When asked about its impact on ecology especially when God chose to create ‘Barren Mountains’, he said it’s a misconception among the people that more plants will damage Ladakh. He added that if God didn’t give us green areas we can make it happen. ‘We are having 0.6 per cent growth of trees in the region which can go up to 6 per cent without harming the ecology. “We can convert the desert into forest but should not convert any forest into desert”, he asserted.
Asked to name his students who have achieved or have made out in the world he said, ‘each and every student of SECMOL has capacity to perform in his/her own way. Without offending anyone we teach skills to our students and then they grow to understand life, respect nature, perform in the field of their own interest and make their world a better place. Referring to climate change he said we at the mountains and near sea shores are on the forefront of facing the brunt of this catastrophe because our glaciers will go away and the water level in seas will rise.
“We have to make a lot of contribution in preserving out eco-system. We have to understand ecology and if there is no understanding of the subject nothing is going to happen here”, he said adding that much damages have been done to the planet earth and we need to arise before its too late. Expressing his concern over deteriorating condition of some of the monasteries in Ladakh, he said that restoration work on these monasteries and other heritage sites is not going on as per the requirements. ‘Basically I call it a joke on the restoration work. Though we don’t interfere in others’ work but this restoration work has to be on a serious note’, he advised.
Feeling proud of Indian Post Stamp Cover released in the name of SICMOL he said that with this comes more responsibility. Wangchuk said that in two villages, ice climbing and ice cafes have been started but they haven’t become money spinners yet. Despite that it’s good enough to create a new kind of winter tourism. Referring to decision of state government in granting Divisional Status to Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk said, “it is good for the region but since Ladakh was an independent Kingdom we need more autonomy for its geo-political and cultural survival”.
Referring to Government planning massive infrastructural development in the region in the form of tunnels and highways, he added, “We cannot blindly open the mountains to make a hell for its subjects. We have to be more responsive while building bridges and tunnels. Mountains manage our region so well and ours is a unique place. Opening them to the world should come with responsibility so that those arriving here do not disturb ecology and our cultural ethos”.
Favouring an all weather stadium for Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk said that sportspersons of this region have ample potential but in absence of infrastructure they are not able to tap it all. He urged government to construct a full-fledged stadium in Ladakh having almost all sports facilities so that our children can also play sports and complete with outer world. Regarding his family he said that since his brother looked after his parents well in him home town, he was able to study well and establish SECMOL, complete engineering course and work on Stupas.
“The money I get from the awards and corporate talks goes to Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL).So far now I have donated rupees one crore to the dream project of alternative mountain university where students will be trained in mountain skills and knowledge about the mountains. Asked to give a Message for engineers he asked them to solve the real life problems and not work in conventional ways in Jammu and Kashmir where potential is more. ‘We need to solve real life problems the mountain regions can be benefited by engineering skills. Corrupt practices must go because they are causing more damages to the state and skills that engineers don.
Wangchuk is also recipient of Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, Real Heroes Award, Ashoka Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship and Ramon Magsaysay Award.