Image result for ladakhi innovator

TNN | Mar 24, 2017, 04.00 AM IST

Los Angeles: Ladakhi engineer and educationist Sonam Wangchuk has been the unfortunately unacknowledged inspiration for the lead character Phunsukh Wangdu in Aamir Khan‘s blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’. But a significant acknowledgement came along recently for the 50-year-old, whose ingenious ‘ice stupas’ have played a huge role in combating water scarcity in the cold Himalayan desert; he became one of only 10 people from across 144 nations to win the Rolex Awards for Global Enterprise at a glittering ceremony held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles.

One can imagine stupas — mound-like Buddhist shrines — in Buddhist-majority Leh and Ladakh, but what are ice stupas? The term was coined by the real-life Wangdu to describe conical mounds of ice that he and his team built using glacial stream flows so they could act as artificial glaciers, gradually releasing water during the crop-growing period of April-May, when water shortage in the region is severe as discharges of glacial melt water start only post-summer.

Flat, artificial glaciers had been created earlier by another Ladakhi engineer, Chewang Norphel, but they were at a height of over 4,000 metres, and villagers had an uphill task reaching them. Wangchuk brought the glaciers to the villagers and changed their shape from flat to conical, thinking that “the sun needs surface area to heat things up,” and that conical ice mounds, with minimal surface area, would melt far more slowly in sunlight. The 20-m high prototypes were created in 2013 by the engineer-educationist and his students from the pathbreaking “student-built and student-run” SECMOL Alternative School co-founded by him in 1994, and ever since, they have supplied a few million litres of melt water.

Wangchuk has twin targets now: to create 20 such stupas, around 30m high, each capable of supplying 10 million litres of water, and to establish an alternative university on 200 acres of desert land provided by the Ladakh Hill Council government. The varsity, he says, will engage youths to find solutions to “challenges faced by mountain people in education, culture and environment.” The prize money of Rs 1 crore he’s got from Rolex in the 40th year of its awards will act as a “seed fund” for achieving these targets.

According to Rebecca Irwin, head of philanthropy at Rolex, the Swiss watchmaker gives awards not so much for achievement but more as enablers so that social and other entrepreneurs can work on their new and ongoing projects. That’s exactly what Wangchuk can do with the prize, for he wants not to rest on his laurels but to build more stupas and empower more students.

Among the others who won the awards at a function marked by the presence of Hollywood biggies such as James Cameron were Kerstin Forsberg, a Peruvian biologist who is into saving giant manta rays, and Andrew Bastawrous, an ophthalmologist from UK whose smartphone-based portable eye exam system is profoundly changing eye care in sub-Saharan Africa.

(The author was in Los Angeles at the invitation of Rolex)