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Ice Stupa Project

Framework for India’s Sustainable Agriculture Initiatives

 Ice Stupa case study

Organisation of the case study

This case study is a complementary document for the scalability framework. It provides a detailed account of how certain programmes scaled up and sustained in the long run. The anecdotal evidence of the success factors given here form the basis of the scalability framework.

Detailed here is an overview of each phase’s activities and success factors. We have identified three phases for the programme, and each consecutive phase depicts either a shift or expansion in solutions, involvement of different stakeholders and a variation in scale. The success factor headings come directly from the scalability framework. Please refer to the framework for theoretical clarity on terminologies.

Core success factors

The core success factors that enable scale, replication, and sustenance are as follows:

About the Ice Stupa programme

Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk and his team from the alternative school, Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), built the Ice Stupa programme to solve growing water scarcity in the region and make communities self-reliant and engaged in water conservation. Over the years, Ladakh has witnessed a decrease in water availability—for irrigation, for livestock, in the groundwater table—which the SECMOL team aimed to address. Mr Wangchuk had established SECMOL in 1987 as a school for Ladakhi children struggling in traditional education structures and for training the teachers across the region in alternative education models. Thus, the SECMOL team was entirely local and acutely aware of the needs of the communities in Ladakh. They could tap into their historical and indigenous knowledge and decided to experiment with artificial glaciers, as Ladakhi communities have been building versions of these glaciers for several centuries. However, the pre-existing designs, specifically one created in 1987 by Padma Shri awardee Chewang Norphel, also an engineer from Ladakh, created horizontal artificial glaciers. They were required to be built at extremely high altitudes of above 4,000 m with a north-facing valley and also needed intensive maintenance to protect the ice from spring and summer sun. Such conditions constrained the creation of long-lasting and easily replicable artificial glaciers. The Ice Stupa programme, begun in 2013, revamped the approach and decided to build the glacier vertically, like an inverted cone, and at a lower altitude at the SECMOL campus to test its longevity and resilience. Its success made a strong case for its scaling-up and led to the launch of Himalayan Institute for Alternative Ladakh (HIAL) by the SECMOL team. The team ensured that these structures gain cultural, societal, and religious significance among Ladakhi communities, along with addressing the immediate needs of providing water for irrigation and sustaining the region’s ecology. Under HIAL, the team ensured the sustainability and scalability of water conservation work in Ladakh and also initiated other key activities aimed at developing and sustaining mountain regions across the world, such as eco-tourism, high-altitude plantations, and passive solar housing. Since 2019, the Ice Stupa programme itself has scaled to 52 functioning artificial glaciers in Ladakh and 14 more across the world.

Ice Stupa artificial glacier project

Phase 1: Experimentation to create vertical artificial glaciers

During the winter of 2013–2014, Mr Wangchuk and his team started experimenting on the existing designs of artificial glaciers. This work was in direct response to the growing water shortage problem faced by Ladakhi communities. Villages in the region traditionally faced dry summer months, during April and May, when the streams ran dry. Ladakh historically receives minimal precipitation and is known as a cold desert (Bright and Spanner 2022). Water scarcity affected agriculture in the region, as crops required irrigation even during the summer period. Additionally, as natural glaciers melt, they started causing flash floods instead of being channelled into irrigation. This led community members to compete for resources rather than co-create solutions. Climate change worsened the existing problem as the Himalayan glaciers began receding. Thus, the team worked on an efficient storage of excess water available in winter rather than just let it wash away in the Indus. The artificial glacier would then melt just in time during spring, providing communities with water for agricultural activities. It was crucial that the solution was easily understood, managed, and replicated by community members, and not just formally trained engineers.

Timeline: 2013–2014

Scale: Ice stupa in 1 village of Phey

Key Drivers: Sonam Wangchuk and SECMOL

Key activities

Programme design

  • Building on precedents: Sonam Wangchuk and his team from SECMOL experimented with the known technology of artificial glaciers.1 The team laid an underground pipe connecting a chosen spot in the SECMOL campus and river Indus. The water pressure caused it to spray upward, freezing in the winter air, forming a cone seven metres in height. They called this cone ‘ice stupa’. Ice stupas were constructed at an altitude of 3,170 metres. The Ice Stupa was constructed from November 2013 to February 2014, and it stood intact until 18 May 2014. The team anticipated the ice to fully melt by 1 May, on the arrival of spring. Through the use of ice stupas, they managed to store 150,000 litres of meltwater. This stored water was then applied for irrigation and groundwater recharge during the transition to crop-planting season. The longevity of this pilot ice stupa built proof of concept that vertical artificial glaciers could survive longer in direct summer sunlight and did not need the kind of high altitude required for horizontal glaciers.

Community engagement

  • Building community ownership: Since SECMOL had educated school children from Ladakh in various technical, scientific, and leadership skills since 1987, the programme team comprised mainly local Ladakhis. It was already known and trusted by the community. The idea of artificial glaciers also came from local, indigenous knowledge, as these communities had been building such structures for centuries. The team could leverage the repository of knowledge and Ladakh’s historic community practices to establish the relevance of the programme.

  • Religious and cultural engagement: The team chose the name the structure ‘Ice Stupa’ to honour the majority Buddhist community of the Leh valley, where SECMOL is based. When the experimental ice stupa lasted successfully till summer, it was blessed by the Buddhist religious leader Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, a senior leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who asked the team to replicate a full-scale ice stupa in Phyang village. The community from the Phey village also tied prayer flags across the glacier.

  • Evidence generation for the community: The need for a working, easily replicated artificial glacier came from the community’s lived experience of seeing natural glaciers shrink in their lifetime. The loss of natural glaciers meant the streams that provided freshwater in the region also reduced substantially. The experiment generated evidence that such artificial glaciers could meet community needs for water, for irrigation and livestock, during the dry summer months.


  • Ensuring financial stability: Mr Wangchuk funded the experimental ice stupa from his own funds.

Success factors

Sync between the solution and the enabling environment

  • Bring suitable change to the enabling environment: The Ice Stupa team harmoniously combined the centuries-old knowledge of artificial glaciers, and the learnings of previous construction efforts by Ladakhi engineers, to develop a vertical cone structure that successfully lasted almost the entire stretch of dry summer months.

Institutionalisation at community level

  • Enable community ownership: Since the Ice Stupa team was led by members of the community—Mr Wangchuk and the students trained by his alternative school SECMOL—the programme already enjoyed trust within the community. The Ice Stupa addressed specific community needs of water availability and learnt from indigenous environmental and scientific knowledge to enable convergence with community resources.

Sustained leadership in the driving organisation

  • Sustained value proposition for the leadership: The programme team could collate information by tapping into local knowledge sources and identified the ice stupa as an opportunity to address community needs, especially in the face of climate change and shrinking natural glaciers.

Financial sustainability

  • Ensuring financial stabillity: At this stage, the programme was funded by its own team leader Mr Sonam Wangchuk.

Phase 2: Research and development

The Ice Stupa team spent four years improving their pilot design. They experimented on it with a variety of materials and locations. They aimed to ensure the final design could be erected easily and at minimal cost to the community members, many of whom would neither be formally educated nor economically very well off. By 2017, the team finalised a design they were confident would scale up. The success was not limited to Ladakh; it resonated worldwide, capturing the interest of Swiss conservationists. They collaborated with the SECMOL team to construct artificial glaciers and rejuvenate natural glaciers in Switzerland. Recognising its triumph, the ice stupa design secured the Rolex Award for Enterprise, enabling future funding and the fulfilment of one of Mr Wangchuk’s primary objectives—supporting the Ice Stupa programme in the long run. This success culminated in the establishment of the Himalayan Institute for Alternative Ladakh (HIAL). Building on the SECMOL precedent, HIAL became an institute of higher education for the community to provide alternative education and livelihood to the people of Ladakh, in Ladakh itself. Its key aim was to protect and conserve the ecosystem of the mountainous region in the Himalayas and globally by co-creating solutions and involving local communities. Simultaneously, the team successfully started scaling up the Ice Stupa programme with the first annual Ice Stupa competition, which fostered a high degree of community ownership of the programme in the region.

Timeline: 2014–2018

Scale: 15 ice stupas in Ladakh and Switzerland and founding of HIAL

Key Drivers: Sonam Wangchuk and SECMOL

Key activities

Programme design

  • Developing scientific evidence and knowledge dissemination: From 2014 to 2017, the ice stupa team worked to improve the technique of their artificial glacier. They tested their design at different altitudes and locations, and with different materials. By 2017, the team landed on a design that could be replicated at a low cost across Ladakh, and similar mountainous regions, and could be implemented and maintained by people without formal technical knowledge.

  • Encourage water conservation through a systems approach: The Ice Stupa team learnt about the periodic loss of water from the Ladakhi communities and then used the programme to engage as many members as possible in water conservation for agriculture, livestock, and ecotourism. The communities became primary actors as the programme scaled up.

  • Strategic thinking: The overall hierarchy within the Ice Stupa team stayed fairly linear with fluid roles but assigned responsibilities, making teamwork leadership cohesive.

  • Identifying and acting on opportunities to set up HIAL: Mr Wangchuk leveraged the success of the ice stupa pilot and the established history of SECMOL to build the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL), an alternative educational institute for older students who had graduated from school. Chetsang Rinpoche, the Buddhist leader who had blessed the Ice Stupa pilot, donated land from the Phyang monastery for the institute. The institute would specifically work towards providing a sustainable livelihood for the people of Ladakh, in Ladakh, while solving the problems of mountain regions. HIAL aimed to train community members by engaging them in the activities of water conservation, sustainable agriculture, energy-saving housing, and ecotourism, among other key activities.

  • International collaboration: In 2015–16, Swiss architect Conradin Clavuot visited Ladakh, as part of his teaching work on ‘Sustainable building culture in the mountainous regions’. Clavuot was then a professor at the University of Liechtenstein, Vaduz. He met Sonam Wangchuk and learnt of the Ice Stupa programme. This meeting led to a collaboration between the programme team and Clavuot, as part of the MortAlive project, to help build artificial glaciers and conserve natural glaciers in Switzerland. The team built two ice stupas in Switzerland in this phase. Research and development for further improvements and upscaling of the parent Ice Stupa team is handled by the team of hydrologists and glaciologists in Switzerland in a synergistic relationship. Both the teams conduct workshops in Switzerland and India to encourage public participation and spread awareness.

Community engagement

  • Community ownership: The programme staff engaged with Ladakhi communities through public talks, open-source planning documents, and small discussions with stakeholders. After the dissemination of scientific knowledge, the staff organised the first-ever Ice Stupa competition in 2018 to encourage community participation, learning, and ownership. With the help of such training, 10 villages could participate, and each village community became the owner of their own artificial glacier.

  • Training community to co-create solutions: Through HIAL, Mr Wangchuk and the team aimed to train Ladakhis in different skills needed to conserve and develop mountain regions and to stop community members from migrating away from Ladakh for higher education. Their driving principle transformed to find solutions for climate change from the communities suffering the brunt of it by harnessing their indigenous historical knowledge with modern science and technology. The team laid strong emphasis on knowledge sharing so as to encourage Ladakhi communities to participate in these programmes, co-create, and also replicate solutions in different locations.

Government engagement

  • Engaging with the state government: Once the programme team had built proof of concept for the ice stupa model, the Governor of the then state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), N.N. Vohra, officially launched the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier Project on 13 October 2014.

  • Engaging with the armed forces: At the team’s request, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army stationed in Leh-Ladakh volunteered labour to help move heavy materials needed to build the ice stupa in this phase. These comprised mainly heavy polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes.


  • International recognition: In 2016, the Ice Stupa programme won the Rolex Award for Enterprise, which carried a prize money of 100,000 Swiss Franc or USD 105,000. The prize money benefitted both the scale-up of the ice stupas and also the setting up of HIAL.

  • Maximising funding opportunities: In October 2014, Mr Wangchuk launched an international crowdfunding campaign online that raised INR 10,285,902 or USD 125,139.

  • Donations: Private companies, such as the Maharashtra-based Jain Irrigation, stepped in to donate materials needed to build the artificial glaciers, such as PVC pipes.

Success factors

Sync between the solution and the enabling environment

  • Bring suitable change to the enabling environment: The programme drivers engaged with the community by thoroughly understanding their needs, local geography, and historical knowledge. Hence, they were able to create an enabling environment for scaling up the programme and ensuring community engagement, as they were the key stakeholders of the programme.

  • Adapt the core solution: Through four years of focused research and development, the team adapted the pilot ice stupa to an easily scalable model that mountainous communities in and outside of Ladakh could replicate without much cost or formal education.

Sustained leadership in the driving organisation

  • Sustained value proposition for the leadership: The team acted on the opportunities the success of the pilot opened up for them to establish HIAL, which had been Mr Wangchuk’s long-term goal. The Ice Stupa programme then got subsumed under HIAL activities, as the team worked to set up and scale up the institute.

  • Enable alignment between leaders, staff, and collaborators: The team was able to align their vision with that of international researchers in Switzerland to build the ice stupa model in a different mountainous region, which eventually led the programme to achieve scale.

Institutionalisation at community level

  • Enable community ownership: The team built community trust by directly addressing community needs and tapping into community/indigenous knowledge of artificial glaciers. They then disseminated knowledge about the ice stupa project and made Ladakhi communities active participants in building and maintaining these glaciers through the ice stupa competition. Mr Wangchuk continued this work of knowledge sharing and co-creation with the community through setting up HIAL.

Institutionalisation at government level

  • Enable pathways for government support: The programme team gained the support of the then state government, when the then J&K governor officially launched the Ice Stupa project in 2015.

Financial sustainability

  • Bring funding from diverse sources: The team was able to raise substantial funds through an international crowdfunding campaign through donations in kind from private companies that aligned with their vision and then by winning the international Rolex Award for Enterprise.

Phase 3: Mainstreaming Ice Stupas

With the Ice Stupa programme’s success, the programme drivers could initiate other activities under HIAL that enabled them to derive value and ensure scale and sustainability not only of the original programme but also of the institute. HIAL aimed at co-creating solutions for the unique problems plaguing mountain systems in India and globally for communities native to these regions. Some of their newer key activities— passive solar housing and high-altitude indigenous plantations and eco-tourism—gained much traction within the community, creating strong ownership among members and enabling them to earn their livelihoods as entrepreneurs. The Ice Stupa programme not only retained its popularity with the community, but its successful execution of the project in Switzerland opened up opportunities for HIAL to initiate further international collaborations. These activities allowed the programme drivers to enlist strong central government support to ensure the effective functioning of agricultural activities and to revive and rehabilitate abandoned villages in Ladakh. Under HIAL, the programme scaled up to 52 ice stupas in Ladakh, and 14 across other Indian states and other countries.

Timeline: 2019 onwards

Scale: 52 ice stupas in Ladakh, 2 in Himachal, 2 in Nepal, 2 in Pakistan, 1 in Kyrgyzstan, 2 in Mongolia, 3 in Switzerland and 1 in Chile; over 200 students graduating from HIAL

Key Drivers: HIAL

Key activities

Programme design

  • Continued international collaboration: The Government of Odisha took over from RRAN and WASSAN as the driving agency, formally launching the OMM. A High-Power Committee for Mission on Millets oversaw the programme, while the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA) served as its district management agency. RRAN and WASSAN had created sustainable leadership, at the community and departmental levels, to work with the state, and the programme continued according to its established values.

  • Expanding solutions to meet community needs: Mr Wangchuk’s team expanded to run the key initiatives under HIAL. The drivers scaled up the Ice Stupa programme to continue HIAL’s mission of water conservation. Another department, focusing on energy conservation, experimented with solutions for housing and initiated passive solar housing projects in the region. These houses need no external heating system and keep the indoor temperature at 15°C, meeting the community’s energy and health needs. In an effort to enhance food security, one department initiated the cultivation of indigenous crops at high altitudes. This began within greenhouses and later expanded to outdoor locations. The goal was to reduce the need for airlifting vegetables from lower altitudes during Ladakh’s severe winters, thus ensuring local self-sufficiency in food supply. Another department developed the concept of eco-tourism to shift Ladakh’s growing tourist burden from the summer months into winter. As a fun activity for tourists, the department used the ice stupas to initiate winter sports in the valley. They also trained community members to run homestays that offered a slower, more authentic Ladakhi experience for travellers. The HIAL teams continued educating and knowledge sharing with the community, ensuring all their expertise was open source and easily available.

Community-level engagement

  • Creating community ownership of ice stupas: The Ice Stupa programme was successfully replicated across Ladakh and other Indian states and countries. More Ladakhi communities, through the annual ice stupa competition, became owners of artificial glaciers for their villages, maintaining and rebuilding them each year.

  • Reviving ghost villages: The Ice Stupa programme was crucial in HIAL’s work to revive and rehabilitate villages abandoned due to water shortages and agrarian crisis. The programme drivers coupled the ice stupa work with that on passive solar housing in 2019–2020 to revive the largely abandoned village of Kulum. They trained the few community members who had stayed back to build the artificial glaciers, enabling them to conserve 3,00,000 litres of water, and soon restart agricultural activity. By 2022, they could harvest potato, zucchini, and alfalfa and rear livestock.

  • Creating eco-tourism owners: In villages where the youth population migrated, elderly communities were trained by the HIAL teams to run farm stays. This had a two-pronged benefit: first, it provided a source of livelihood for the elderly community as they could no longer do hard labour on farms and, second, it ensured an even distribution of the tourists, which could protect the fragile ecology of the region from getting overburdened. These farm stays are called Amaleys and Abaleys (ama and aba mean mother and father, and ley a place to stay in Ladakhi). Meanwhile, younger members of communities also used the Ice Stupa programme to organise winter sports, such as the first Ladakh Ice Climbing Festival in 2019, to hone their entrepreneurial skills without leaving Ladakh.

Government-level engagement

  • Building relations with the central government: In November 2019, HIAL’s key activities gained formal support from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) through a joint initiative for the ‘Research, Documentation and Development of Tribal Communities of Ladakh’ (Ministry of Tribal Affairs). The initiative encompassed three of HIAL’s key activities—ice stupas, passive solar housing, and eco-tourism. MoTA’s goal aligned with that of HIAL to revive the village communities of Ladakh and to stop the migration of its youth. The initiative enabled HIAL to use the Ice Stupa programme to start rehabilitating the village of Kulum using ice stupas as a way to conserve water, recharge groundwater, and bring back agriculture. The rehabilitation work soon expanded to 25 other villages in the region. Simultaneously, the initiative supported HIAL’s Himalayan farm stays, run by elderly community members. Finally, it supported and explored ways to scale up HIAL-developed passive solar housing to meet the community’s energy needs without spending excessively on fuel and to allow the community to run the farm stays well into winter.

  • Convergence with government schemes: HIAL could engage support for part of its Ice Stupa programme through government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (Qadri and Qadri 2022). The scheme aims to provide clean energy to farmers for agrarian activities. HIAL could tap into government support to set up drip irrigation and micro-irrigation through this scheme, to put the water conserved via ice stupas to good use.

  • Engaging armed forces: The HIAL team provided the armed forces with passive solar housing to meet their growing need to conserve fuel and protect the health of stationed soldiers from thermal shock. By 2022, HIAL had completed 30 such housing projects for the armed forces, with hundreds in the pipeline. For this housing project, HIAL decided to do away with fixed-cost pricing. Instead, they were compensated by whatever the armed forces saved in terms of projected heating costs.


  • Flexible options for funds: As an NGO registered under Section 8, HIAL has received funds through government R&D schemes, corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, and donations. However, each team under HIAL is moving from a donation to an entrepreneurial model. The ecotourism team realises revenue from farm stays, ensuring enough for the community members’ livelihoods and the team’s cost. The housing team works according to a ‘pay as you save’ model, where government and/or armed forces pay them for passive solar housing from the money saved from projected heating costs. HIAL has started charging clients, such as international collaborators, government agencies, private players, for the consultation process—for example, to build ice stupas in different countries—while keeping their scientific and technical knowledge free and open source. They do not charge village communities either in Ladakh or any other country, such as the ones they collaborate with in Nepal and Pakistan.

Success factors

Sync between the solution and the enabling environment

  • Bring suitable change to the enabling environment: Under HIAL, the ice stupa team partnered with multiple stakeholders nationally and internationally to create an enabling environment for programme implementation in different mountainous regions. They partnered with government departments, village communities, private players, and civil society across the globe to scale up the ice stupa model.

Sustained leadership in the driving organisation

  • Sustained value proposition for the leadership: With the success of Phase 2, Mr Wangchuk and his SECMOL team could establish and begin scaling up HIAL as a full-fledged institute that would contribute research, learnings, and livelihoods to Ladakhi communities. HIAL’s key activities allowed the leadership to keep deriving value from their programmes.

Institutionalisation at community level

  • Enable community ownership: Community members started driving and expanding various HIAL initiatives, becoming owners and maintainers of ice stupas through the annual competition, leading the eco-tourism initiatives through the Himalayan farm stays and winter sport activities, and co-creating solutions with HIAL to rehabilitate abandoned villages.

Institutionalisation at government level

  • Enable pathways for government support: HIAL successfully converged with the existing government schemes to implement the ice stupa project for agriculture revival, while creating new pathways with MoTA to support its housing and eco-tourism activities.

Financial sustainability

  • Ensure flexibility in funding: HIAL initially leveraged government grants, CSR grants and donations to fund its activities. However, it has successfully started moving towards an entrepreneurial model of funding, where each department earns enough to become financially self-sufficient.


Virtual interview, Nishant Tiku, Ice Stupa Team Coordinator. Cconducted over Zoom. 2023.


Bright, Dan, and Holly Spanner. 2022. “Ice Stupas: The Artificial Glaciers Helping Combat the Effects of Climate Change.” Science Focus, 48.https://www.sciencefocus.com/planet-earth/artificial-glaciers/.

Inzamam, Qadri, and Haziq Qadri. “How Himalayan Water Crisis Boosts Sustainable Agriculture.” FairPlanet, December 14, 2022. https://www.fairplanet.org/story/himalayan-water-stress-boosts-sustainable-agriculture/..

“Ice Stupa.” Ministry of Tribal Affairs - Government of India. Accessed November 10, 2023. https://tribal.nic.in/IceStupa.aspx.


CSR corporate social responsibility
HIAL Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh
MoTA Ministry of Tribal Affairs
SECMOL Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh