In 2014, Sonam Wangchuk, who believes that science is beneficial only when it can be applied to everyday problems, decided to improve a water harvesting design created by “ice man” Chewang Norphel so that more people could benefit from the innovation. Norphel, a rural development engineer, had built the first artificial glacier in 1987 in Phuckche village with the help of people who had been facing a severe water shortage for a long time. Wangchuk, one of the founders of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, many say, is also the inspiration behind the character of Phunsuk Wangdu or Rancho in Three Idiots, a popular Bollywood film.
To build a prototype, Wangchuk, along with a group of students from his school, built a giant cone of ice in Phyang, about 10 km from Leh city, and called it the ice stupa, as it resembles traditional Buddhist monuments. This was built at an altitude of about 3,200 metres and lasted for about four months. “I once saw ice near my school at a height of 3,000 metres. That is when I first thought that a glacier can be made at a lower height as well,” he says. After the success of this cone, a pilot project was implemented in the winter of 2014 with the help of local communities. To do this, Wangchuk raised an online crowdfunding of nearly US $120,000. It was later supported by the head of the Phyang monastery.