Ice stupas, the contested water towers of Ladakh

While ice stupas have been hailed as sustainable solutions to the water problems of Ladakh’s villages, the locals think otherwise.
Ice Stupas near Phyang monastery (Image Courtsey: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons) Ice Stupas near Phyang monastery (Image Courtsey: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons)

Ladakh, the arid Himalayan desert, is a high elevation borderland located close to the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir, in India. Water here originates from glaciers in the high altitude mountains that tower over Ladakh’s villages. Simple earthwork irrigation channels tap meltwater from streams that originate from these glaciers. The glaciers are extremely sensitive to seasonal variations and serious concerns have been raised in recent years on the impact of climate change on glacier recession and the subsequent sustainability of water resources in the region.

A paper titled ‘Giving water its place: Artificial glaciers and the politics of place in a high-altitude Himalayan village’ published in the journal Water Alternatives talks about a unique experiment that was conducted in the villages of Phyang and Phey in Ladakh, where ice stupas or artificial glaciers were constructed. These ice stupes were hailed as sustainable solutions to solve the water problems of the region. This unique experiment was conducted by a social reformer named Sonam Wangchuk who teamed up with a respected Buddhist monk from the village monastery to build three ice stupas.

How are Ice stupas formed?

Ice stupas are formed by transporting water down from streams descending from the glaciers through water pipes and then forcing it through 'sprinklers' (narrow vertical pipes with tiny holes). In winter, night-time temperatures drop below freezing and the water flowing out of the sprinklers freezes into a vertical tower of ice, hence referred to as ice stupas. This water melts during spring and helps farmers in their fields at the beginning of the agricultural season.

One ice stupa is located on the main stream bed at the upper end of the village of Phyang that has used this spring for centuries to irrigate its fields. Phey, located downstream also uses this spring water. The other two ice stupas are located in an arid area called the ‘Thang’ which lies outside the watershed area of Phyang village.

Villagers unhappy with ice stupas

People from both the villages however, are unhappy with this initiative. They feel their customary and legal rights have been violated because water has been drawn from the main stream that irrigates their fields by using special water pipes, to irrigate poplar plantation in the ‘Thang’.  Phey’s villagers have now got a government order prohibiting the construction of artificial glaciers in the area. A second ice stupa has been built next to the main stream bed, upstream from Phey. However, this project has not drawn resistance from the villagers.

Why is it that ice stupas located at different locations in the same village have been received so differently by their intended beneficiaries? The paper argues that there is a need to understand the importance of location/place in water politics. Water is a dynamic and historically and culturally conditioned entity, which plays an important role in the everyday practices that determine its use in the community.

Community, geography, place and water management practices in Ladakh

The villages of Phyang and Phey are located in a valley that lies perpendicular to the Ladakh Range. Meltwater from five glaciers in the mountains combines to form a stream in summer that flows in Phyang village and then gradually descends and drains into the Indus. The residents of the valley traditionally use this water for irrigation by directing it through a network of irrigation channels for growing summer crops. Agriculture combined with livestock rearing forms the means of subsistence for the villagers. Livestock graze on the high-elevation pastures on the northern ridge of the village and on the slopes of the mountains. The Thang, an arid and unproductive area, located outside the watershed area of Phyang village is at times used to grow winter grass for livestock.

Water management practices are not only economically important for the people of Ladakh; they also are an integral part of the symbolic, social, and political domains that link community to place. Rituals that help in maintaining irrigation infrastructure are obligations that are honoured by every household in the village. In March, at the beginning of the agricultural season, monks from the Phyang Monastery trek to the top of the village where the main stream begins and offer their prayers to ensure a steady supply of water from the glaciers.

All the households in the village divided into mohallas, contribute labour or cash for maintaining the irrigation channels and plan the distribution of water in their areas. Irrigation structures are constructed using local material and irrigation channels consist of earthwork trenches lined with alfalfa grass or stones while old clothes and rocks are used to block outlets.

Priority to irrigation is given on the basis of the geography of the area and power relations between people in the village. Thus, the wheat fields that grow between 3800 and 3500 metres elevation are watered first, as wheat is planted early (usually by mid-April). Wheat grown at higher altitudes takes a longer time to mature than wheat grown below 3500 metres and barley grown above 3800 metres.

In times of scarcity, the most influential Buddhist families, lands belonging to the monastery and to certain other high status families are given water first. The smaller village of Phey is located downstream of Phyang. According to custom, the Phey villagers can only redirect water from the main Phyang stream after the summer solstice on June 21, or once all the fields of Phyang village have been adequately watered.

Contested uses of land between villagers and ice stupa developers

Many of these traditional practices were not taken into consideration while deciding the legal administrative boundaries of the village during colonial rule. Thus areas were classified on the basis of economic utility and common village lands, village springs and summer pastures located in the north of the village and the Thang to the south, were also classified as wastelands. With an increase in non-agrarian commercial activities in recent years in Ladakh, previously worthless non-arable land (land which is not suitable for growing crops) has become valuable and the Thang area is now in great demand for residential and institutional use.

While the monastery and the developers of the ice stupas want to use it to showcase their experiment, the villagers of Phyang want to use it for commercial and residential purposes. People living downstream of Phyang and the villagers of Phey now have access to lesser quantities of water. They feel that the Thang-based ice stupas are taking water away from their cultivated, ancestral lands and threatening the integrity of their water governance institutions.

Further, weather resistant high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes are used to draw water from the main stream that feeds the irrigation channels to construct the ice stupas. Phey’s villagers have begun to actively oppose the project when they found that the ice stupa engineers had doubled the diameter of the pipes without consulting them.

The villagers of Phey argue that although the pipes used for the ice stupas only draw 'wasted' water (water not used for irrigation in the winter, according to the ice stupa developers), the plantation on the Thang would need continuous watering after May or mid-June when meltwater from the artificial glaciers runs out. This would put a lot of pressure on the water available for the fields of the lower-lying mohallas of Phyang and Phey villages, which get their turn in May and June.

Moreover, the villagers of Phey and some farmers from Phyang do not agree with the project’s claim that water is wasted in the winter. Although surface water is not used for irrigation in the winter, farmers in both villages believe that it recharges the springs, which provide drinking water to both villages.

In contrast to this, a new ice stupa built in 2017 in Phyang beside the bed of the main stream shared by both the villages for irrigation has not met with resistance as it does not violate the water use practices of the village that are tied to the identity and sacredness of the place.

The paper ends by arguing that developmental projects such as those in Ladakh, though well meaning, need to understand that water management practices are deeply tied to the place, its political and cultural history and the beliefs and practices and meanings that people ascribe to a geographical area, which could be different than those perceived by developmental interventions. Understanding these can greatly help in designing appropriate interventions for sustainable development of water resources in the area with support from the community.

Access the full paper here

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