Sonam Wangchuk – Engineer turned education reformer – Ladakh

Posted September 7, 2017 11:58 am by

Sonam Wangchuk runs an alternative school in Phey, 13 kilometres from Leh, for about 60 students a year who fail the school board exams. The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) alternative school coaches the 16-year-old students and also enables them to learn by applying their minds.

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SECMOL campus runs on solar energy and uses no fossil fuels for cooking, lighting or heating. He invented the Ice Stupa technique that creates artificial glaciers which can potentially help resolve the water scarcity problem in the cold desert region.

Sonam Wangchuk School

Every other year, Rolex supports individuals with innovative ideas that make the world a better place. Sonam Wangchuk became the only second Indian to win a Rolex Award for Enterprise on November 15, 2016.

Tell us a bit about the Ice Stupas. How did you come up with the structure? What led to the innovation?

The Ladakh is a cold desert at roughly 3,500 m altitude between the Kunlun and Great Himalayan mountain ranges and the farmers face acute water shortages during the early crop-growing period between April and May. Global warming and shrinking glaciers has made things worse and has left little water available to farmers.

I truly believe that access to water in the desert landscapes around many high-altitude towns and villages of Ladakh could be improved if the huge seasonal outflows of glacial water could be frozen in a way that it melts gradually in spring to be available to the villagers when they need water the most.

I was inspired by the experimental work of a fellow Ladakhi engineer, 80 year old Aba Chewang Norphel.  Aba Norphel had created flat ice fields at heights of 4,000 m and above. But villagers were reluctant to climb that high to maintain them. It was a tantalizing situation: a logical water supply solution was available, but faced challenges.

I experienced an eureka moment, when I was driving past a bridge over a stream near our SECMOL Alternative School. I saw a big chunk of ice under the bridge, which at 3,000 m was lowest altitude and hence warmest place in the whole area, and it was the month of May.  So I thought –we can keep ice right here in Phey if we protect it from the sun.

But where do you get shade?

I began to think about reflective materials to cover the ice surface, and then I started thinking about reducing the surface area instead, realizing that basically the sun needs surface area to heat things up. I then understood that conical ice-mounds would have minimal surface area for the given volume, and would melt much more slowly than flatter fields of ice, even if they stood in sunlight. And in 2013, we began to create prototypes of the ice stupas. I have likened them to the Tibetan religious stupas that dot the Himalayan landscape as I believe that it gave a better sense of ownership for this concept among the local population.

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How involved are your students in the project?

The Ice Stupa team is formed of volunteers who are mostly former students from our alternative school. I expect that some of them will carry it forward as a career as glacier entrepreneurs. This we have seen is the best way to spread the knowhow to other regions in an efficient way.

Tell us more about HIAL (Himalayan Institute of Alternatives)

When we saw that the ice stupa artificial glaciers were a success and could actually green large large chunks of desert in the Phyang valley near Leh we thought the newly greened desert could be used to fulfil another longstanding dream for Ladakh, an alternative mountain university that engages mountain youth in finding many ice stupa like indigenous solutions to mountain issues.  You see we in the mountains are a microscopic minority, not just linguistic and ethnic but also climatic and technological. What works in New Delhi or New York does not work for Ladakh, in fact most of the times they don’t even work in New Delhi (laughs).  So we wanted our youth perusing higher education to engage in finding real life solutions to our unique challenges rather than just be part of a ritual of chalk, talk and paper… that ends with a paper degree. We wanted to set an example where students do hands on learning, where students can engage in practical application of knowledge more than half the time.

This project is proposed on roughly200 acres of land allotted by the Ladakh Hill Council Government. It will engage youth from Ladakh, the Himalayas and other mountains of the world in finding their own solutions to the challenges facing them – a spirit that is epitomized by the ice stupa project. It will be a non- sectarian international institute with a local governing board representing all sections of the society. SECMOL with over 25 years of experience in running a similar practically engaging alternative school will be the co-founders and the university will tailor make courses that are meaningful to life in the mountains and the world in general ranging from passive solar heating and energy solutions to climate change adaption to the liberal arts.

We want to set an example which hopefully will change the face of higher education for other parts of the world as well. So we thought of Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which honours innovations like ice stupa and is accompanied by global publicity could be put to good use to spread the word about this new idea. Fortunately, things worked out as per our designs and we won the award, although there were 2,322 applications from 144 nationalities.  Now coinciding with the award, we have launched a crowd funding campaign to kick start the university project.  Since it is a rather unconventional university we did not want to go to the government or conventional donors in the first stage. Instead we wanted to lay the foundations of the concept with the help of ordinary people of the world. The beauty of crowd sourcing is that it also takes our message far and wide among to people of the world and helps us crowd source human resource as well.  Like they say when you earnestly want to do something the entire universe conspires to help you. We are overwhelmed by the response.  We are contacted by freshly retired professors who want to teach, young graduates who want to volunteer, individuals and companies who want to make financial contributions.   Already organisations like Future Institute have been partnering in master-planning of the university campus all pro bono, companies like Jain Irrigation Systems and Essel world have have supported with pipes for making of ice stupas, Indian Air Force airlifted pipes when passes were closed and Milaap India’s largest crowdfunding platform has waived all platform fees for people who contribute for this cause on https://milaap.org/fundraisers/hial

How easy or challenging was it to get people to sit up and take notice of this venture and its sustainability?

The impact of what the Ice Stupa could do to transform the lives of the land and the villagers was generally understood by them immediately. We started piloting the idea of the ice stupa in the Phyang village for a real-life application. People of the village came and volunteered to plant 5000 trees which were supported in the lean months by the moisture from the ice-stupa. That is a proof of the concept that we shouldn’t stop.

The fact that the “Ice Stupa” artificial glacial experiment had the blessings of His Holiness DrikungChetsangRinpochey, one of the topmost leaders in Tibetan Buddhism after HH the Dalai Lama helped a lot to gain the confidence and support of the local population.

What is the future for these Ice Stupas?

I think the future is already here and it is bright.  In the last three months, we have taken the ice stupa technology to Sikkim on invitation of the state government to drain and refreeze a dangerous glacial lake that could otherwise cause Kedarnaath type flashfloods. We then took it to the Swiss Alps where we are currently building ice stupa prototypes on invitation of the Swiss authorities, as a tourism attraction in the short term and a glacier enhancement measure for the long term.

I think artificial glaciers will be an occupation and enterprise of the future… fortunately or unfortunately.

What are some of the other projects that you are working on at SECMOL? 

There are several other projects like setting up a company that builds pre-fabricated fully solar heated mud buildings for the Indian Army and the local population, similarly we are starting some experiments on preparing Ladakh to adapt to an era of increased rainfall and diminishing glaciers.

But setting up the Alternative University is by far the most ambitious project.  The success of that ice stupas triggered our current project to create up to 20 ice stupas approximately 30 m high, each capable of supplying 10 million litres of water.  Using this to green a huge desert we hope to leapfrog to our next ambitious dream… of setting up this alternative university Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh.

 One assumes innovation is about something out of the ordinary. But you’ve shown how innovation is about reconsidering existing vocabulary of material and space, and voicing them with a different meaning. How do you define innovation?

I think innovation is about exploring and arriving at new possibilities in order to make people’s lives better. To me good innovations use minimum resources for maximum impact and therefore simpler the solution the better. Using materials that are abundant like mud, sun, ice/water and shapes and forms that people can relate to, to solve some of the most pressing problems of the mountains has been my way.

Humankind has always evolved. From simple animals to ones using tools, from using basic survival tools to a cacophony of noisy machines. I find things that are beyond machines and moving parts to be more evolved.

In today’s world where everything needs to be concrete like solar power plants and water harvesting systems, your ice stupa turns the idea on its head with its melting impermanence. Were you aware of the existing contrast?

Like they say simplicity is the ultimate sophistication!  I really like things that are simple, affordable and functional.  Seeing the various solar energy gadgets at our school in Ladakh someone once asked me which one is your favourite!  I thought for a while and said… it is not cutting edge photovoltaic technology or LED lights or Li-ion batteries that we have! My favourite solar device on the SECMOL Campus is the Campus Time, which is one hour ahead of IST. This helps the students go to bed early and get up early and take advantage of the sunlight as the sun rises.  So my favourite solar device has no device at all, no moving parts, nothing…  just get up at 5.30 in the morning and use the best solar lighting that happens right outside our windows…  it happens for all rich or poor, rural or urban.   It’s silly to sleep trough this solar lighting and then brag about the hi-tech stuff.   Similarly, an ice mountain that forms itself with nothing but a pipe and gravity and then melts away giving birth to green life is to me height of sophistication.  I didn’t think of the impermanence angle but that’s makes it even more interesting to me.

In your projects, you explore the potential of a material and the space, where does such fine observation come from? Is watching integral to your way of work, unlike just seeing things?

Like they say… one need to read between the lines, I like seeing behind and beyond what manifests directly before us. And yes, it’s all about being observant. Most of my answers come from such observations.  Before I started Ice stupas and it was believed that ice and artificial glaciers were not possible at lower altitude villages which are warmer. I one day saw a big chunk of ice under a bridge near our school, which is the lowest altitude and warmest place in Leh. It was in the month of May, so I thought, it’s not temperature or altitude that melts the ice pre-maturely. It is direct sunlight that makes ice melt fast. That’s when I came up with the idea that ice needs just needs protection from the sun. Now sun needs surface area to melt ice so we can protect our ice by denying sun that surface… Since covering it any any shading material is impractical I adopted the geometric shape of a cone which has minimal surface area for the given volume of water. And it worked, the first prototype ice stupa lasted till mid-May and the pilot lasted till July.

Similarly, for making earth or mud buildings… which is my other passion… at one stage I was faced with a big problem called pulverization of clay lumps. To powder clay lumps into fine soluble powder is a big job and world over they use these huge oil guzzling pulverizer machines to do that job.  I observed that in Ladakhi winters freezing water has such strength that it breaks metal pipes and even pulverizes big rocks by its freeze thaw action… so I just sprayed water and made the clay lumps wet in early winter and then left them peacefully. Natural freeze-thaw action did the rest of the job and in spring I fond fine pulverized clay powder instead of hard lumps.  So answers to our problems are often there, written clearly, but we need to read between the lines or beyond the scenes.

 What does an award like the Rolex Awards for Enterprise mean for you and the project?

Over the last two decades our work has received ample recognition and awards have come our way. Rolex Awards for Enterprise however is the only award that we proactively applied for, and this we choose to do for a very specific reason. While working on the Ice Stupa’s when it looked like it was going to be a success, it looked like we could be greening a huge dessert. We wanted this desert to host a University where young people could be engaged in many ice-stupa like solutions for the mountain regions. For mountain regions like Ladakh which are not only ethnic and linguistic minorities but also climatic and technological minorities, such a university for indigenous research and development is a need of the hour, but it was a huge ambition and we needed the world to come and help us. I knew that the Rolex award was about enterprise and testing one’s limits and I realized that the “Ice stupa” innovation fits in its criteria.The award comes with massive global publicity, so to reach out to the world we applied for the Rolex award.The global recognition and credibility that this award brings, we hope will help us in this next journey to set up the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).Meanwhile we are contributing the award money of 100,000 Swiss francs for greening the deserts for this cause and hope that people of the world will also come forward andhelp us realize this dream.

Your passion for solar power and earthen architecture features in the school, will the university be the same? Can you elaborate on the ideas you have for the university?

Yes the university and the township that grows around it will be all built of natural materials like earth and powered by the sun, watered by ice stupas and nurtured by humans.  It will be a place where our youth learn by doing things,  working in teams, making mistakes but guided by experienced facilitators.

For example the school of business and entrepreneurship will have actual companies on campus, school of Hospitality and tourism will run high end hotels and tourism programs, the school of education will have innovative schools running where young people can learn on the job and come out prepared for the real world.  This is what is missing today and hence we find that most of our university products are unemployable. No wonders employers have to retrain them on the job at great expense.