Tackling climate change one rock at a time

Saturday 28 June 2014

by Gaia Vince


In Stakmo village, farmers are preparing for harvest. The scene feels timeless. And yet much has changed, the villagers say. “By mid-September, we would wake up with completely frozen moustaches,” says Tashi, a 76-year-old farmer, who wears a woollen hat and large, pink-tinted sunglasses. I’m above 4,000 metres (13,000ft), but it is not cold enough to freeze moustaches – from the clear, cloudless sky, the sun beams down intensely, as it does for more than 300 days of the year, and it’s burning my European face. Wedged between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China (or, more accurately, Tibet), Ladakh was a latecomer to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and remains a contested territory. At night the Indian and Pakistani border patrols take pot shots at each other; the Chinese come and paint Indian rocks red, and the Indians respond by painting Chinese boulders green. But Stakmo feels very far from such nationalistic posturing. The villagers are more concerned with the ancient and essential task of coaxing food from the mountains’ mustard-coloured desert soils. The mountains are changing colour before people’s eyes: from white to tobacco as the glaciers disappear. And with them, Ladakh’s only reliable water source.

The snows used to arrive after October and build during the winter. Then, in March, the snowpack would begin melting, providing vital and timely irrigation for the sowing of the area’s barley crop. But the past decade has seen a gradual reduction in snowfall. When the precipitation does come, it arrives as rain during the harvest season, ruining what few crops the villagers have in the fields.

Glacial melting is accelerating every year, with current annual retreat rates of 70 metres for some glaciers. Mountains are changing dramatically and so fast that we can use recent Google Earth images to watch the white bits shrink. Melting rates have already exceeded those predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – they expect 70% of the region’s glaciers to disappear by the end of the century. Meltwater from small mountain glaciers alone already accounts for 40% of current global sea-level rise, and is predicted to add at least 12cm to sea levels by 2100.

We will either have to discover ways to live without the fresh water that mountain glaciers store for us, or replace Earth’s largest fresh-water reserve with massive concrete reservoirs. The former option would certainly jeopardise the lives of millions of people, not to mention eroding wetlands and other ecosystems. The latter is urgent – globally glaciers have, on average, lost almost a quarter of their mass in the past 60 years. Around the world, reservoir-building by governments is already under way, albeit on a woefully inadequate scale. However, there is another option. I’ve come to Ladakh to meet a remarkable man who is taking on the global warming challenge. The person they call the Glacierman dresses not unlike Clark Kent: beige sweater, sensible lace-up shoes. But, unlike comic-book superheroes, he’s 74 years old. He invites me into his beautiful family home in the small village of Skara, near Leh, where we drink the peculiar local butter-chai and snack on almonds and apricots. Chewang Norphel is no ordinary villager. He makes glaciers.
Norphel takes a barren, high-altitude desert and turns it into a field of ice that supplies perfectly timed irrigation to some of the world’s poorest farmers. So far, he has built 12 artificial glaciers since he retired as a government engineer in 1995, and their waters sustain around 10,000 people. It’s hard to describe what an extraordinary feat this is.

In a display of energy and enthusiasm that is exhausting to witness, Norphel skips across the boulder-strewn landscape above Tashi’s village. He wants to show me his latest artificial glacier design, but I’m finding it tricky simply to breathe the thin air, 4,000 metres up. He carries a small backpack: tonight he will sleep in a tent 1,000 metres higher up, at temperatures that dip to -10C, so as to continue his work in the morning. Engineer, hydrologist, glaciologist, back yard enthusiast, Norphel has created his own field of expertise using scientific principles and training but the tools of an uneducated peasant. In the 1940s, when Norphel was growing up, there was just one school in Leh, which taught in Urdu (not Ladakhi), and only up to primary standard. As the youngest of three brothers, Norphel would ordinarily have been sent to live in a Buddhist monastery. So, at 10 years old, Norphel simply ran away, travelling more than 250 miles to go to school in Srinagar, Kashmir. The only poor boy at his school, he paid for his education by cooking and cleaning for his teachers.

Graduating in science at the college in Srinagar, Norphel knew two things: he loved mathematics and science, and he wanted to help the farmers he’d seen struggling so hard during his early childhood. For Norphel, the whole point of his training has been about using his knowledge in the service of his fellow Ladakhis. Engineering is a vocation for him in the same way that medicine might be for a doctor.

“Glaciers were vanishing and streams were disappearing,” Norphel says. “People would ask me to bring them water. Their irrigation systems were drying up and their harvests were failing. The government was starting to bring in grain rationing.” Norphel was determined to do something. “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. Peace depends on water.”

Inspiration came within a hundred metres of his house, one bitingly cold winter morning. “I saw water gushing from a pipe and was thinking what a shame it is that so much abundant water is wasted during wintertime – the taps are left open to stop the water freezing in the pipes and bursting them,” he says. “Then I noticed that on its route to the stream, the water crossed a small wooded field, where it was collecting in pools. Where the trees provided shade, it was freezing into ice patches. By early March, the ice patches melted.”

Norphel realised that if he could somehow copy this on a much larger scale, he would have a way of storing up this winter water in an artificial glacier that would melt at just the right time for crop sowing and irrigation. It was a beautifully simple concept but achieving it would be fraught with difficulties. “People laughed when I first presented the idea and asked for funds,” he says. But he soldiered on. He held meetings with village elders and explained the concept. Gradually, his relentless enthusiasm caught on.

Norphel’s ingenious idea was to divert the winter “waste” water from its course down the mountain, along regularly placed stone embankments that would slow it down and allow it to spread and trickle across a large surface depression a few hundred metres from the village. Here, the slowed water would freeze and pack into a glacier. He shows me the glacier site, pointing out the path he sends the water on until the rocky valley starts to take shape in my mind and I see how the glacier forms. Siting is everything. The glacial area is shaded by a mountain face during the winter months, when the sun is weak and low. By March, when the sun rises high enough, the thick ice sheet begins melting and the water pours into a tanker and through a sluice gate to the farmers’ irrigation canals. The meltwater also helps recharge the groundwater aquifer. This water is so precious that during the irrigation season, a man has to sleep by the sluice gate to guard against theft.

The rocks beneath the ice sheet channel mountain breezes, cooling the sheet further. And Norphel points out second and third artificial glacier sites at successively higher elevations. “By the time this lowest one has melted, the middle one will start to melt,” he says. “Then the highest one and finally the natural glacier at the top of the mountain.” He is grinning now, and I can’t help joining him.

Norphel has built 12 glaciers. They average 250 metres by 100 metres, and he believes they provide 6m gallons of water each, although there has been no accurate analysis to date, and the undulating ground makes it difficult to guess the volume of ice in each glacier.

His work has earned him recognition from those he has helped – “I have a shelf full of home-brewed beers and a trunk of khatag [ceremonial silk scarves given by Buddhists],” he says – but there has been little interest from the scientific world. He reckons more than 75 other Ladakhi villages are in suitable locations for his artificial glaciers, but lack of funding is holding him back.

“This man is a hero,” Tashi tells me. “The artificial glacier he has given us allows me to grow potatoes, which need to be planted earlier in the season, and my harvest is so much bigger. I grow tomatoes and other vegetables as well now. I make three times as much income.” The new irrigation has allowed him to take advantage of the warmer conditions. Climate change is ushering in novel farming opportunities across the region (where water is available), and a whole range of vegetables – aubergines, apples, peppers, watermelon – are now growing at high altitudes where previously farmers struggled to sow barley among the ice and desert.

Tashi’s new fortune may be short-lived, though. Climate change is also altering the precipitation patterns here, bringing less snowfall during winter when it is needed to contribute to the artificial glaciers. “These glaciers are not magic formations,” Norphel says. “They need to build over winter.”

They are not a long-term solution to the climate-change problems people are facing here, but they do provide a breathing space for some of the poorest people to adapt. One day, this entire region is likely to become uninhabitable for the majority of farmers currently living here. Norphel is giving these people a few more precious years in the homes, landscapes and communities that their ancestors have prepared them for.

Norphel is not the only independent agent defying humanity’s onslaught by geoengineering glaciers on Earth. In the Peruvian Andes, people are attempting to paint a mountain back to whiteness. Licapa, at 4,200 metres up, is a village of people whose livelihoods are based around farming alpaca. This part of Peru, 60 miles west of the town of Ayacucho, is one of the poorest in the country and was hit particularly hard in the 1980s and 90s during a decade of terrorism led by the Shining Path, a violent Maoist guerrilla group based here.

When I arrive at the village, below the Chalon Sombrero mountain peak, women are doing laundry in a small, grubby-looking pond, while a group of men repair one of the stone houses. These highlanders, who speak Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, have spent the past 20 years trying to rebuild their broken communities, homes and lives, helped by various government schemes. But climate change is against them.

Salamon Parco, a young father, is fighting a personal battle against global warming. When he was the same age as his five-year-old son, Wilmer, he tells me, a river ran through the valley, watering the alpaca pastures. Women never used to wash in the pond, he says. But the glacier at Chalon Sombrero, 5,000 metres above sea level, disappeared completely 20 years ago, and with it the water. All that is left is a black rocky summit above a rocky channel where a river once ran.

It doesn’t often rain in Licapa, and what rain does fall is confined to January and February. The rest of the year, the high-alpine grasslands rely on glacial meltwater and, in its absence, turn yellow and die. More than 1,000 people have already left the village because they couldn’t feed their families, migrating to shanty settlements around Peru’s capital, Lima. Parco, with a wife and three young children, has considered doing the same. “But my home is here. What would I do in the city? I need to try to make it work here first,” he says. Instead, Parco and his friend Geronimo Torres are spending every morning painting the black mountain white, hoping to bring back the glacier on which 900 people depend.

They began painting the mountain in May, and by my visit in September they have turned three hectares (nearly eight acres) of black rock white. The remarkable experiment, backed by $200,000 (£120,000) in prize money from a 2009 World Bank climate-change adaptation competition, was conceived by the rather eccentric Peruvian entrepreneur Eduardo Gold. The money, which Gold says he has yet to receive, is going to be used to build a factory in Licapa to produce lime paint.

The experiment is based on the principle that a black body absorbs more heat than a white one. By increasing the reflectivity of the black rocks using white paint, the mountain should be cold enough to retain the ice that forms on it – and eventually a glacier will be made. That is the hope, anyway. There are plenty of sceptics, including Peru’s environment minister, who has said the money could be better spent on other climate-mitigation projects. And Gold, who has no scientific qualifications, has also been judged with some suspicion by agencies and public bodies.

Nevertheless, Parco says he is already seeing results. “In the daytime, the painted surface is 5C, whereas the black rock is 20C. And at night, the white surface falls to -5C,” he says. Ice has begun forming on the painted rocks overnight, although it has melted by 10.30am. The plan is to dig a small reservoir above the painted section and use a wind turbine to pump water up to it; this would then be released during the night in a slow trickle over the paint, where it’s hoped it would freeze. In time, the ice would build up and the process would be self-sustaining, because glacial conditions would be established: “Cold generates cold,” Gold says. Parco and Torres have 70 hectares to paint in total, a job they had thought would take two years. They started the job with two other men, but after 15 days this other pair dropped out because there was no money to pay them.

I ask Lonny Thompson, an Ohio University glaciologist who has been studying Peru’s glaciers for the past 40 years, what he thinks of the idea. Painting the mountain may have some success in the short term in a local area, he says, but it is not feasible over greater regions: “Nobody is going to paint the entire Andean chain white.” What is needed now that the glaciers are disappearing is manmade water storage to replace them. “This means a big programme of building dams and reservoirs, which is tricky in such an earthquake-prone zone, but necessary.”

It is unlikely that Parco’s remote village of Licapa will be prioritised for new waterworks in the next few years. Painting a mountain white may, however, produce enough ice to buy the villagers time to adapt to a different livelihood.

From the rounded cabin windows of the seaplane, the Maldives archipelago resembles a chain of turquoise splashes in the Indian Ocean. Each of these shallow, aquamarine lagoons is fringed with a halo of coral that looks green from this height. Nine-tenths of the Maldives is covered by sea and the little that is above water is dispersed into about 1,200 tiny islands, spread over hundreds of square kilometres. More than 400,000 people live on these scraps of land, the largest of which is less than 8km square. It’s a precarious existence. The country’s tallest “mountain” is just 2.4 metres above sea level, putting the Maldives’ fragile swirls of sand among the most vulnerable lands in the world to the ravages of climate change.

I’m visiting at a time of great physical, social and political upheaval. After 30 years of brutal dictatorship, there is a new young president, Mohamed Nasheed, full of fresh ideas. But he needs all the tourist dollars he can get to overcome the budget deficit he inherited, to make good on his pledged social and infrastructure improvements, and for his grand plan: a sovereign fund to rescue the nation when the waters get too high to stay.

I’ve come to find out what it’s like to live in the world’s lowest nation, the country most at risk of disappearing. And to meet the remarkable man who is innovating ways to fight the global force of humanity, refusing to let his nation drown silently.

Nasheed became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president in late 2008, promising to turn his state into a renewable-energy powerhouse and the world’s first carbon-neutral country. I meet “Anni”, as he is affectionately known, after sunset in the modest courtyard garden of his family home. He has a passion and urgency about him – an almost physical desire to get things done quickly. It’s as if he knows he hasn’t got much time in the presidency (sadly, this is all too prescient). He has spent most of his life as a human rights activist and journalist, campaigning for democracy, and has been imprisoned more than 20 times.

In 2003, Anni demanded an investigation after a young inmate was tortured to death, sparking national protests and riots. He fled the country and set up the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) while in exile in Britain. When he swept to power in 2008, Anni promised his jubilant supporters a raft of reforms. However, he soon realised that he’d inherited a system riddled with corruption. Despite having the highest per capita earnings in south Asia, the Maldives is poverty-stricken, with almost half the population earning less than $2 a day. The contrast between the indigenous population and the sizable volume of wealthy holidaymakers could not be starker, and there is little interaction between the two – almost all tourists fly directly to and from their resort island, never visiting an island inhabited by Maldivians. “We have third world islands where Maldivians live, next to luxurious European resort islands,” Anni says, losing his easy smile.

Defending his people from climate change, he says, is a humanitarian challenge on the scale of the second world war. “Climate change is not just an environmental issue,” Anni says. “It’s a human rights issue that risks the homes, livelihoods and lives of millions of people. People around the world have a responsibility to help those who are most vulnerable.” Anni’s many ideas are radical, and include geoengineering artificial coastlines and islands within the archipelago, constructing floating islands, and even buying land in a foreign country to relocate the entire Maldivian population, using the sovereign wealth fund.

I head to a resort island to see what they are up against. My boat pulls up at a picture-postcard scene: transparent waters kiss white sands in front of tastefully designed timber guest bungalows. But when the beach empties of bikini-clad bathers, the machinery moves in. Twice a day, a large pipe descends into water offshore and retrieves sand, which is pumped on to the beach. Without the pump, there would be no beach. In fact, there might not be much of an island either. The Maldives is as transient and ephemeral as the shifting sands that move with the tide. Many of these islands are mere sandbars that come and go with the changing currents.

I travel with Anni to the official opening of the nation’s first storm-safe “designer island”, Dhuvaafaru, in Raa Atoll. Formerly an uninhabited jungle, the entire vegetation was razed and a new village funded and built from scratch by Red Cross workers for 4,000 tsunami survivors. The houses are positioned further inland compared with other islands, and each has a traditional well for washing (rising sea levels have turned the groundwater brackish in all but the Maldives’ largest island). The school and community centre are both constructed to withstand storm surges and other inundations, are large enough to house the entire island community if needed, and are raised high on stilts to allow floodwaters to gush through and over the island unimpeded.

Relocating people to designer islands with emergency buildings high on stilts might work in the short term for a few people, but it is not a long-term solution to the rising sea level across the nation’s 200 inhabited islands: there simply aren’t enough suitable new islands to relocate to. Local environmental organisation Bluepeace believes that the nation needs to think bigger than walls and island extensions. It argues that what is really needed is a series of raised artificial islands, dotted around the archipelago. Seven islands, perhaps paid for by the international community by way of compensation for climate change, could allow the entire Maldivian population to stay ahead of the rising waters, the charity suggests. The idea is not entirely far-fetched. One artificial island, Hulhumalé, was built in 2004, north-west of the capital. While it was designed mainly as a commercial port and to reduce pressure on the overcrowded capital, it was built three metres above sea level, enough to ensure it lasts to the mid-century by conservative estimates.

However, Hulhumalé has increased erosion in adjacent islands by disrupting natural currents, and dredging the seabed for materials also reduces the resilience of the shores. Several companies are now working on floating-island concepts. One of them, Dutch Docklands, is in negotiations with the government to create four individual ring-shaped floating islands (each with 72 water-villas), 43 floating private islands in an archipelago configuration, the world’s first floating 18-hole golf course and an 800-room floating hotel. At the other end of the scale is Thilafushi, another artificial island, created inside a natural lagoon 20 years ago as a solution to the problem of waste in the Maldives. Each tourist generates 3.5kg of waste a day on average, which is five times the locals’ average, and the island, known locally as Rubbish Island, now receives more than 330 tonnes of garbage a day, by boat, to be piled up in a gargantuan fetid heap swarming with flies. Among the stinking garbage and acrid smoke from rubbish burning, it is just possible to pick out the Bangladeshi migrant workers sorting the waste – among it are oil drums, asbestos, lead, cadmium and batteries, which pollute the ocean during garbage “landslides”. Every day the island grows another square metre as the mountains of waste fill in the lagoon.

The pioneering attempts by Anni to couple human rights and climate-change action impress me deeply. Tragically, midway through his term, in early 2012, he was ousted from power in a coup d’état. His many projects were put on hold or cancelled as investors pulled out. At the end of 2013, after increasing international pressure, violent street clashes and protests, elections were finally held. Anni lost by a whisker to Abdulla Yameen, the brother of the former dictator, who had led an Islamist campaign accusing his rival of being too secular and close to the west. In opposition, Anni continues to fight for action on climate change, development and environmental issues. Now the rest of the world must step up.

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