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LEH, INDIA—In the high-altitude desert of the Indian trans-Himalayas, one man is buying time for villagers suffering from global warming by creating artificial glaciers.
The ancient kingdom of Ladakh is the highest inhabited region on Earth. Wedged between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, Ladakh consists entirely of mountains and is home to a mostly Tantric Buddhist population.
In the so-called rain shadow of the Himalayas, Ladakh receives just five centimeters of rainwater a year—about the same as the Sahara Desert. The population is entirely dependent on glacier and snowmelt to irrigate crops.
Global warming has hit the region particularly hard. Around the principal town of Leh, most of the glaciers have disappeared in the past 15 years. The snow line has risen more than 150 meters, and remaining glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers. These glaciers are now at high altitudes, far from the villages, where they don't produce significant meltwater until May or June.
The villagers here are particularly vulnerable because they experience such a brief summer. If they don't plant their one annual crop of barley, peas or wheat by late March, there will be no time for it to mature to harvest before winter begins in September, after which the temperature drops below –30 degrees Celsius.
With villages emptying as people seek a living in Indian megacities, retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel has decided to do something about the worsening situation.
"Water is the most precious commodity here. People are fighting each other for it: in the irrigation season, even brother and sister or father and son are fighting over water. It is against our tradition and our Buddhist teachings, but people are desperate," Norphel, a Ladakhi native, says. "Peace depends on water."
View a slideshow of the artifical glacier at work