A Ladakhi dream fuelled by a Swiss award

Sonam Wangchuk has received a Rolex Award for Enterprise for his ‘ice stupas’ in Ladakh that helped mitigate water shortage problem in the region for agriculture


Sonam Wangchuk. Photo: Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic
Sonam Wangchuk. Photo: Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic

Los Angeles: With a knapsack slung over one shoulder and holding a sheaf of brochures in his left hand, Sonam Wangchuk, 50, was a common sight in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, Los Angeles, in the third week of November.

Wangchuk was in Los Angeles to receive a Rolex Award for Enterprise, a bi-annual honour instituted by the Swiss watch company that celebrates men and women engaged in extraordinary projects that make the world a better place. This year, Wangchuk and his fellow awardees, who included an environmentalist, an eye specialist and a robotic suit designer, joined a group of men and women honoured by Rolex since the awards were launched in 1976. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the awards.

Wangchuk hails from Ladakh, situated at an altitude of 3000 m, and is considered to be a high altitude desert. The melting of glacial ice in the summers poses the danger of flooding and in the winters, everything is frozen solid. Spring, therefore, becomes the cruelest time of the year for Ladakhis, who face a severe water shortage. This also coincides with the early crop growing period.

Wangchuk came up with a solution to the problem that on the face of it is so simple you wonder why no one had thought of it before. His idea was to freeze the seasonal outflow of glacial water that can then be used when there is a shortage. He and his team created “ice stupas”, conical ice mounds that are like mini glaciers, which slowly release water by melting during the crop-growing season. It was for this innovation that combined culture, environment and technology, some of the fields that Rolex has always sought to identify with, that saw Wangchuk win the enterprise award.

The engineer-turned-educationist is quick to give credit where it is due, in this case to fellow engineer Chewang Norphel, who had attempted to create flat artificial glaciers at a height of 4000m and above. “High altitude glaciers come with their own problems however, not including the fact that people have to trek to maintain it,” says Wangchuk.

A patch of unmelted ice in the shade of a bridge during a drive in the month of May is what gave Wangchuk the idea of conical glaciers. “Keeping ice at low altitude is a challenge. It melts but if shaded, it can last longer. A cone has a minimum surface area and maximum volume and as such, it seemed like the ideal shape,” he explains, before asking, “did you see the video? We have a video” and whips out the phone to show just how the stupa was assembled.

The water with which the stupas are formed is carried down through buried pipes whose final section rises vertically. Due to the difference in height, pressure builds up in the pipe, the water rises up and when it erupts from the open mouth of the pipe, freezes as it falls. Eventually, the stupa is built. The first stupa that Wangchuk built in 2013 lasted until May. In late spring, the melted water is collected in large tanks, then fed onto planted land using drip-irrigation pipes. In 2015, a stupa he built with a crowd-funding campaign that paid for a 2.3km pipeline grew to a height of 20 metres. It lasted till July and supplied 1.5 million litres of water.

It is an application of the simplest principles of physics and anyone who has followed Wangchuk’s work over the years will not be surprised that he came up with it. For the uninitiated, Wangchuk was the inspiration for Aamir Khan’s gifted character, Phunsuk Wangdu, who believes in the application of education rather than theoretical knowledge. Even the school in the film was inspired by Wangchuk’s SECMOL Alternative School, which he had conceived of and built in the 1990s.

“Ladakh had a 95% failure rate in class X results in the nineties. Students who speak Ladakhi and Tibetan at home were being taught in Urdu and English but what works in Jammu and Srinagar does not work here. So, we set up SECMOL for those who had been abandoned by the system. The focus in our school is on application of knowledge. We have built solar-heated mud buildings in which the temperature inside is maintained at 15 degrees even if it is -15 outside.” The stupas too were built along with his students.

Wangchuk has other achievements—and accolades—to his credit. His Operation New Hope, launched in 1994 sought to bring about reforms in the government schools system through collaboration between the government, village communities and civil society organizations. The overall pass percentage in Ladakh went up to 75% from 5% because of this. “I have no desire for awards but I applied for this one (Rolex award for enterprise) for a purpose.”

The Rolex award for enterprise has a cash component of 100,000 Swiss francs, apart from an engraved Rolex Oyster watch. “This money is seed money. After all, what do you do with seeds? You grow them. You don’t eat them.”

Seed money for what, you may wonder. And this is where the brochures that he was carrying come in. Bearing the legend Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, they outline Wangchuk’s ambitious plan for a mountain university which will focus on direct engagement in field experiences than mere classroom lectures. “Higher education in hill regions needs to be specific to our needs and requirements. Currently, it is a mess. We are a minority, not just ethically but also ecologically. The solutions that work in New Delhi and New York don’t work for us. We need to use education to improve lives, apply it (education) and then it is alive; otherwise it is dead knowledge,” he says.

Wangchuk hopes to raise the rest of the money through crowd funding and mentioned this even in his acceptance speech at the award ceremony.

Wangchuk has now joined a group of 11 Indians who have been honoured by Rolex in the past, out of which four are young laureates. This category was created by Rolex in 2010 to “inspire action in the next generation.” One of these is Piyush Tewari of the SaveLIFE foundation, whose work has led to Supreme Court-approved guidelines issued by the Centre for the Protection of Good Samaritans to prevent police harassment of those who help accident victims.

In a presentation prior to the awards, Tewari spoke about how the prize money (50,000 francs for young laureates) actually gave him the impetus to quit his job and focus on his non-government organization full time. Tewari is now a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Other Indian winners in both the young laureate and laureate categories from India include Shekhar Dattari, Romulus Whitaker, Moji Riba and Arun Krishnamurthy. Their work has spanned fields as wide as conservation of reptiles to cleaning up of lakes.

The Rolex Enterprise Awards are a bi-annual feature and in 2016, most of them were handed out for technology-oriented projects but environment-related ones also featured prominently. One of the winners in this category was Kerstin Forsberg, who is working towards the protection of giant manta rays in Peru. A 2011 Ashoka Fellow, Forsberg has been leading a project to change the way Peruvian communities perceive mantas, not just ecologically but also as a tourist attraction.

The other laureates this year were Vreni Haussermann, who works for the protection of Patagonia’s fjords and Conor Walsh, who has developed a robotic suit for stroke victims.

“We are granting awards to individuals who can make things happen. The award is to help the project happen, take it forward,” says Rebecca Irvin, associate director and head of the Rolex Institute.

In 2014, the largest number of applications for the award came from India. “This program really works in India; it is all about how an individual can make a difference to society and we see that enterprising spirit in the country,” Irvin said.

And there is perhaps no better example of that spirit than Wangchuk, who has his sights firmly set on a mountain university now.

The writer was in Los Angeles as a guest of Rolex.

READ MORE