In the desert at the top of the world, people spread water and plant seeds. From dry sand, sprouts and saplings grow.
With all plant matter returning to the soil as manure, slowly organic matter and soil build. Ancient stone wall edged terraces hold the soil in place. With the first spring flooding and the plow each year, seeds are mixed in and the rich brown earth is revealed.
Barley, wheat, peas, vegetables, and fruit trees are essential plants for cyclical human survival here in this high desert of Ladakh. They all depend upon spring and summer flows of snow- and glacier-fed melt water, brought to them by people. In springtime it is so clear: the steep banks of the Indus river appear as dry sand and rock, then a human settlement appears and there is abundance: leaves bursting out, countless fragrant white orbs of apricot blossoms, grass growing, crop sprouts rising from soaked soil. Irrigation canals channel water across even-sloped rubble valleys, around terraces, and across impossible slopes so that it can pour down and feed the soil.
Snowfalls have decreased in Ladakh in recent years; glaciers are shrinking here as they are around the world. These two things provide much of the irrigation water.
Many Ladakhi families today do not go hungry as they sometimes used to. Now plastic-packaged snacks appear, even if people need to carry them an hour’s walk up a steep canyon to serve them for tea. Eating imported staple foods from the lowlands of India has become a daily reality. How these are grown, and what that means for people and land, is another story. Punjabi rice farmers sometimes drink pesticides when they get worked out of business by harsh economics controlled by powerful seed companies.
The umbilicus that connects people to earth in this place is shrinking. Yet in many places it is still strong. When I ask people in Tar village if they would have enough to eat without imported rice, they say that they absolutely would, yes, without question.
The Ice Stupa is an attempt to capture some of the winter stream flows in the village of Phyang, lock it up in great statues of ice, and delay its release until it is needed as air and soil warms for cultivation. Phyang is not far outside the capital of Leh. This winter’s project is a test case to discover effective techniques and assess how well this project could benefit communities all over the Himalayan desert.
It requires pipes, sprayers, pumps, a good winter water source, and a crew to work continuously assembling and maintaining this gear. It also requires an initial input of machine power, to level a large area and create pools below it from which water can gravity feed into canals or drip irrigation further downslope. This year, it also required a shipment of pipes from Jammu, which broke en route, followed by a supply of donated replacement pipes, 2.3 kilometers of them, which were airlifted over snowy passes by the Indian Air Force.
Workers, volunteers from SECMOL, start a stupa by piling branches around a central pipe. The pipe stands vertically, about twelve feet tall, and sprays water into the air that then settles and freezes on the branches, forming icicles that grow into connected mounds of ice. Now the main stupa is three stories tall and forty feet across, a lumpy cone shape. It is solid enough to climb all over it.
In order to build size quickly, workers harvest and pile great limbs of thorn bushes onto the stupa. Caitlin and I spent about seven days working with the crew, harvesting thorn branches, driving them to the site, dragging them up to the stupa, climbing and throwing them on. These provide a lot more surface area for the water to freeze onto, and help us control the shape, too. When the temperature dropped below freezing, the sprayers went on, and soon the fresh layer of thorns would become white, the branches and thorns fat and bulbous, icicles growing below them.
The Ice Stupa is being built in the wide valley above Phyang village. On one day in early March, the 1,000 families of Phyang village each brought five 8-10 foot cuttings of willow and poplar to the site. On the next day, they all showed up again to hear speeches, watch traditional music and dance, and plant 5,000 trees in machine-dug trenches. They did a very fast job and left a lot of earth work to be done, but they did plant 5,000 trees in one hour. Having never seen it before, I am a bit sceptical that in this desert you can plant a cut green willow pole in the ground, water it, and expect it to grow. But these people seem to know what they’re doing.
Phyang’s monastery of 80 monks is a major partner in the project, and asked this work of the people of Phyang as part of their annual tribute to the monastery. They knew that this amount of tree cuttings and work time would not be a burden. The monastery building is 450 years old and stands like a white and red walled fortress above the village, across the slope from the Ice Stupa.
Can enough villages in Ladakh afford to feed a crew and airlift pipes and run a backhoe for weeks and summon the people power and money to accomplish something like this? The people power seems abundant here, especially because people are invested in their communities, they still depend on farming and growing trees, and success in this sort of project could mean that in the future they have water when they need it.
The money and equipment, who knows? Forty years ago it might have been unimaginable. Forty years ago, the first automobiles were brought to Ladakh. Today, many people showed up in private cars, and drove home. Today, thousands of soldiers of the Indian Army live in huge camps all through Leh valley as well as the border regions. This is Leh valley, a “suburb” of the capital, and here at least some Ladakhis have been able to channel modern resources to the uses they see fit.
The Ice Stupa now sits above Phyang village, slowly melting in the April sun and turning slightly brown as the thorns are revealed. How long will it last?