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Ice reservoirs in the Himalayas

The vast glaciers of the Himalayas are the primary source of the major Asian rivers that have sustained life since early times Lying on the northerly fringes of the Himalayan watershed, Ladakh covers an area of 96,701 square kilometres and is characterised by extremes; it has an average elevation of 3000 m, annual precipitation of 50 to 70 mm and temperature ranging from -30 to 30 degrees Celsius.

It is estimated that over the past six decades, 20% of the Indian Himalayan glaciers have melted, which has led to water shortage and an emerging problem of high mountain flooding. Much of the region is covered in snow between October and March, leaving a mere third of the year for farming. Villages in Ladakh are usually located on the banks of streams or near streams, and rely on glacial meltwater or groundwater. Farming has persisted in this region for over a thousand years.

With reducing precipitation, increasing temperatures and shrinking glaciers, many Himalayan villages are being abandoned. This trend has been significantly impacted by the reduced natural supply of glacial meltwater in early spring to irrigate barley, buckwheat and other sustenance-based produce.

Furthermore, tourism has also brought significant strain on the water supply (the number of tourists can easily exceed the local population of 300,000 of the main city of Leh). This has led to the proliferation of unregulated wells whose use has significantly lowered the groundwater table below Leh. Therefore, both seen and unseen, the water is decreasing.

Ladakhis are now developing a unique competency in ice engineering based on ancient techniques of glacier grafting to store water in frozen form for use in spring. (It is said that an ice wall was raised to impede Genghis Khan’s army in the 12th century.) In recent years, ice stupas have been built in profusion; these are conical structures which resemble in form and symbolism the Buddhist religious stupas that scatter the landscape of the Himalayan region.

Groundwater in the Pacific

Groundwater is one of the great unseens. Essential to human life - millions of people depend on it to meet basic human needs - it is increasingly vulnerable to human activities and the impacts of climate change. Groundwater is an under-appreciated and extremely fragile resource to which damage can be irreversible. The pressures of urban growth, agricultural development and tourism mean that careful evidence-based management is essential if the planet's groundwater reserves are to be protected for future generations.

Groundwater reserves in many Pacific Island nations exist as hidden fresh water bodies `floating' in the ocean. They are especially at risk due to rapid development, impacts of climate change and paucity of reserves. Excessive extraction leads to increased salinity.

Nowhere in the Pacific exemplifies more the problems of groundwater scarcity than the Kingdom of Tonga. This small nation of 100,000 and 170 islands spread over an area of 660,000 square kilometres includes some of the most remote communities on the planet. Traditionally villagers used hand-drawn water from hand-dug wells (vai keli - 'dug water'). Even then, salt water intrusion was an issue for remote island communities. Livestock refusing to drink the water was a good indicator that it had become too saline. Most wells are now pumped using diesel motors and this had led to further strain on vai tapu ('water from below').

Community participation and stewardship are fundamental to sustainable use of these marginal water resources. This also requires, in equal measure, rigorous scientific investigations and robust engineering. We use maker-space technology to build instrumentation for a fraction of the price of commercial alternatives, and the newest mathematical and computational techniques, to explore and understand these hidden and highly uncertain resources. We have also revived traditional mobile manual drilling rigs for use in very remote areas.

We work closely with overseas collaborators and friends and seek deeper understanding of this mysterious but life sustaining resource.

Our scope of work

Our work spans the following areas:

  • development of inexpensive geophysical instrumentation and cutting-edge data interpretation for groundwater exploration,

  • exploratory drilling and well construction for remote communities using highly mobile drill rigs,

  • cold climate hydraulic and ice engineering, and

  • indigenous knowledge and engineering.

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