Sonam Wangchuk and Ladakh’s Ice Stupas

Sonam Wangchuk

Ice stupas are conical 25 feet tall ice structures created in Ladakh by Mr. Sonam Wangchuk, a Ladakhi engineer, innovator and education reformist. Mr. Sonam Wangchuk has already been famous for his SECMOL alternative institute which gives admission to 60 students who fail their board exams. In his school, Wangchuk has developed solar heated mud buildings that needed no artificial heating even in extremely low temperatures, underground mud pipes and rocket stoves that need much lesser amount of fuelwood than ordinary stoves. But his ice stupa initiative has given him international recognition and he was bestowed with the Rolex award for Innovation in 2016. The ice stupas have derived their name from the fact that they have conical structures which represent stupas and Mr. Wangchuk wanted the local population to relate to this innovation as he believes that innovation without involvement cannot flourish.

As goes the popular saying, ‘’ Necessity is the mother of invention”, the idea behind the ice stupas has been the fact that Ladakh is a cold mountain desert which receives only 100 mm of rainfall each year and almost no rainfall during the summer months. According to, Ladakh has an average temperature of -30 degrees and the only means of sustaining farming which is the livelihood for rural population is by diverting water from various glacial streams. According to The Guardian, originally Ladakhis used to practice glacial grafting wherein they chip away the existing ice and pool pieces together at higher altitudes to form artificial glaciers that can supply water throughout the season. Even before Wangchuk, another engineer Chewang Norphel had created artificial lakes by diverting melted water on the shaded side of the mountains. But the fact remains that this was not a feasible solution as these artificial lakes could not be created in lower altitudes where people actually lived. Mr. Sonam Wangchuk’s ice stupas use the same principle but uses a conical structure to minimize the surface area under direct sunlight which helps to ensure that the stupas last longer and can be created in lower altitudes. The structure of the ice stupas is very simple. The water that flows downstream from glaciers is transported through underground pipes. Using gravitational force, the water from the pipes is pumped out at the opening and this water freezes into ice crystals as it falls on the ground due to the extremely low temperature of -20 degrees Celsius in Ladakh.

The biggest advantage of these ice stupas is that they provide a regular stream of water to the rural Ladakhis even during the summer months and thus it aids in the cultivation of wheat, barley, vegetables, apricots and apples. Also, the ice stupas help to mitigate the dangers of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). A GLOF occurs when a dam blocking a glacier’s path collapses due to erosion and buildup of water pressure. These ice stupas help in reducing the water in the lake by releasing it slowly and thus reduces the discharge during the floods. According to the National Geographic Society, a climate refugee refers to any person who is forced to evacuate his/her native place because the area becomes difficult to live in due to global warming and climate change problems. Given the fact that the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, Mr. Sonam Wangchuk’s ice structures serve as possibly the last resort to mitigate the problems of vast numbers of climate refugees particularly in the mountainous regions. Also, Wangchuk and his team are planning to use these ice structures as igloos which can be rented out to tourists which will help to boost tourism in Ladakh and further help to develop the rural economy of Pheyang where these stupas have been primarily located. The ice stupas have received ample international recognition as well. The governing body of a Switzerland district has invited Mr. Wangchuk to create a prototype of his ice stupa there to help boost tourism and to counter the problem of fast melting glaciers in Switzerland.

To conclude I would like to say that Mr. Sonam Wangchuk’s ice stupa project is a boon for Ladakhis and many other mountain communities. This mitigation technique is cheap and is truly indicative of the Make-in India initiative. It supports innovation and creativity that does not follow the beaten path. But sadly, Mr. Wangchuk is facing several difficulties in securing enough funds for the expansion of the project. According to his interview with, Wangchuk aims to set up a university which will not only generate more ice-stupa like solutions but will also generate enough revenues to fund these innovations.

-Contributed by Disha Mahajan

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