Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chewang Norphel - the 'Glacier Man', an unknown hero

Chewang Norphel, 71, is a shy, soft-spoken innovator from Ladakh. Farmers in his village call him a messiah. Ex-President K R Narayanan called him an "invisible rural engineer". But Norphel is better known as Ladakh's 'glacier man' who can generate water and vegetation in the barren landscape of Ladakh.
For over 15 years, Norphel, a civil engineer by training, has been building 'artificial glaciers' to make life a little easier for the hard-working but terribly poverty-stricken farmers of Ladakh. Norphel comes from the small village of Skarra on the outskirts of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He always wanted to do something to help the people of the region who suffer the harsh conditions of this remote, inhospitable high-altitude desert in the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to below -30C.
In Ladakh, water shortage is more acutely felt during the summer months, between March/April and June. These months are critical for Ladakh's farmers. Any delay in sowing the crop rules out an October harvest, as the crop does not then mature in time to beat the harsh winter. The glaciers begin melting only after July. And so the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of water is made available through the melting of natural glaciers. Sometimes there's no water to irrigate even a few crops.
Norphel observed that a lot of water was wasted during winter and water was not available when it was actually needed by the farmers. So Norphel thought that it would be helpful for the farmers if he could create artificial glaciers, which are closer to village and comparatively lower altitude, so that it would melt at the beginning of summer and water would be available to the farmers at the right time.
Using some local ingenuity, Norphel built his 'artificial glacier' from stone embankments and a few hundred metres of iron pipe. First, water from an existing stream was diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water was made to flow out onto a sloping hill at regular intervals along the mountain slope. Small stone embankments impede the flow of water, creating shallow pools. During the winter, as temperatures drop steadily, the water in these small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier.
Early water release from an artificial glacier comes as a bonus for farmers. It enables them to get water a whole month before the snow starts melting on the mountain tops. This is particularly useful to start sowing, as the sowing season ends before water from natural glaciers begins to flow down the mountain.
What a great contribution he has made to Ladakh. What an innovative idea of 'Artificial Glacier'!!!
This humble hero definitely deserves laurels and recognitions.

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