Sonam Wangchuk.
Sonam Wangchuk.

Educationist Sonam Wangchuk wins Rolex Award for Enterprise

Sonam Wangchuk of Ladakh was chosen for his work on building artificial glaciers that supply irrigation water during the times of drought

In a glittering ceremony marked by the presence of some Hollywood heavyweights, the 40th Rolex Awards for Enterprise were announced in Los Angeles. The awards are an international philanthropic programme that supports new and ongoing projects by individuals that will eventually benefit mankind.

The venue was, fittingly enough, the Dolby Theatre, better known to the world as the venue for the Academy Awards and while James Cameron was the master of ceremonies and Don Cheadle one of the presenters, they still managed to be the lesser stars of the evening compared to the five awardees, one of whom is Sonam Wangchuk of Ladakh, who is quite well known for his work in the field of alternative education. Wangchuk was chosen for his work on building artificial glaciers that supply irrigation water during the times of drought.

The other four laureates include an eye specialist who has devised a smart-phone based portable eye examination system for use in resource-poor settings, a conservation biologist who is working with giant manta rays in Peru, another biologist who works with fjords in Patagonia and a bio-medical engineer who is developing soft robotic suits to help stroke victims walk again. “The single-minded vision to go after a dream with great passion and gusto characterizes all of our laureates," said Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy at Rolex.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the awards which were created in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the first water-proof watch. There have been 140 award winners since then from fields as diverse as environment, applied technology, exploration and discovery, science and health and cultural heritage. “These are not achievement awards," said Irvin. These are awards which are given in recognition of ongoing work, in order to aid it further. “These are awards which are given to individuals and not a group or an institution," she added further. The award comes with a cash prize of 100,000 Swiss francs and a Rolex chronometer watch.

The 40th anniversary saw nearly all the laureates from the past 40 years gather in LA’s Dolby Theatre for the ceremony which was opened by Academy Award winning director Cameron. Sonam Wangchuk was the first one to be honoured. Ladakh has been facing acute water shortage over the past few years and Wangchuk and his students have come up with a very effective plan, one that uses gravity and natural resources to store water which can then be used during dry times.

“We are forming ice stupas, conical ice moulders that behave like mini-glaciers, slowly releasing water for the growing season. Conical ice moulds have minimal surface area and would melt much more slowly than flatter fields of ice," he said. Wangchuk also admitted that the cash prize is actually seed money for his ultimate dream; an alternative university for mountain people where, quite like his school, The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), the focus would be on applied education practices.

The five winners were chosen by a jury of 12 experts. The other four are Andrew Bastawrous, who is working towards eye care in sub-saharan Africa; Kerstin Forsberg, who is working for the protection of giant manta rays; Vreni Haussermann, and Conor Walsh. Hausserman is exploring Chilean Patagonia’s fjords while Walsh is a biomedical engineer who is tackling the mobility problems of stroke sufferers. “I have known about the award since I was a student and it’s very exciting to be receiving one myself. Apart from the prize money, it also brings the opportunity to work with other laureates and take our work further," said Forsberg, who is from Peru and at 32, the youngest in this group of laureates.

India has been one of the most active participants in the programme. Eminent names like director Mira Nair have been involved with the enterprise award and some of the previous winners in the young laureate category include Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLIFE foundation and Arun Krishnamurthy, an environmental activist. Romulus Whitaker, a conservation biologist, won the Rolex Award in 2008 for his project to establish a network of rainforest research stations throughout India.

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