A solution to water scarcity: Chewang Norphel’s artificial glaciers


ladakhThe adjacent picture of Ladakh with its white sand and mountains speaks of its matchless beauty. The people of Ladakh, however,  might not exactly enjoy this scene, as the aridity of the region leads to severe water scarcity and brings in associated problems.

Due to its location in the rain shadow region of the Himalaya, Ladkah is a cold mountainous desert. Annual average rainfall is 50 mm. The only source of water are glaciers. They melt in summer, releasing the little water that the people get.

However, things are slowly changing for the people of Ladakh as they now have artificial glaciers to ease their water woes, all thanks to Chewang Norphel or Ice Man as he is popularly known.

Norphel was born in 1936 in Ladakh. He went to college in Srinagar as a student of science. He completed a diploma course in civil engineering from Lucknow in 1960. In June 1960, he joined the rural development department of Jammu and Kashmir in Ladakh as a civil engineer. He says there is scarcely a village in Ladakh where he has not made a road, a culvert, a bridge, a building or an irrigation system. He was also involved in projects making zings (small tanks fed by run-off from melting glaciers).

chewang norphel

Genesis of the Idea

Norphel was well aware of the problems people, especially farmers, had to  face due to the arid conditions of the region. He wanted to do something to solve this problem. The idea to make artificial glacier struck him in 1987 when he saw water dripping away from a tap( that had to be kept open to avoid freezing the water in the pipe and bursting it) and forming a large pool that became a sheet of ice in winter.  He realized that water melted from glaciers, large part of which goes simply flows into the Indus and goes untapped, can be melted and stored for later use.

The method he thereafter adopted diverts water coming down the mountain into pipes or channels and brings the water to a shady section of a valley.  There he builds a series of check dams out of stones to slow and hold back the water which then freezes at night.  Because it is in the shade the water will stay frozen until the weather warms up in March and then it is released into channels built to distribute the water just in time for the growing season. As the glaciers are located lower down, they melt early and the villagers start getting water in April when they need it most.

artificial glacier


Norphel has built 12 glaciers so far, the largest being 2 km long in Phutse. The ingenuity of his technique has given the people of Ladakh a low cost solution to their perennial problem. The Phutse glacier cost a meager Rs.90,000. Local villagers did the manual work and the materials used were entirely local – stones, rocks, earth. Thus the solution was both inexpensive and environmentally sound.

He retired from his government job in 1995, but soon went back to work with the Leh Nutrition Project, a NGO, as project manager for watershed development and later as their director, a position he holds to this day.

Norphel’s efforts have being recognized in India and abroad. Award wining documentary film-maker Aarti Shrivastava also directed a short documentary on his life titled White Knight .

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This article is part of I See India’s endeavour to report solutions to common problems of India, rather than dwelling on the problems alone.Water scarcity is a problem plaguing different parts of the country. Instead of just focussing on that problem we bring to you the different solutions being enforced across India.   



  1. Truely a fitting award for a very deserving person- Mr Chewang Norphel. Met him first time in the year 2000, while on an Watershed Development Projects inspection visit of Ladakh region. When I was taken to Changla Pass at an elevation of more than 17000 feet, I could walk just 15 – 20 steps before taking a break to breath in enough oxygen. At that height O2 level drops to about 25% of the normal level of oxygenavailable at the sea level. What I saw at that elevation was simply amazing- A fully tamed glacier by using big boulders, a difficult task even at the sea level.By doing such a difficult task, Mr Norphel had ensured that the water after the little snow that Ladakh receives, is not lost towards China but provides irrigation and drinking water for the scattered habitation of our people in Ladakh. After returning to Delhi, I managed to get the Changla project notified as the world’s highest watershed development project.
    Mr Norphel has implemented several such projects in Leh, Nobra and Zanskar areas of Ladakh.
    Congratulations Mr Norphel. An example for many people to emulate.
    Former Advisor
    Ministry of Rural Development,
    Govt. of India

    • Thanks for the reply. It was a delight to read your experience and very motivating to know about the support you gave to the Changla project. Thank you for your contribution to the country :)

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