Sonam Wangchuk (born 1 September 1966) is a Ladakhi engineer, innovator and education reformist. He is the founding-director of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) which was founded in 1988 by a group of students who had been in his own words, the ‘victims’ of an alien education system foisted on Ladakh. He is also known for designing the SECMOL campus that runs on solar energy and uses no fossil fuels for cooking, lighting or heating.
Wangchuk was instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope in 1994, a collaboration of government, village communities and the civil society to bring reforms in the government school system. He invented the Ice Stupa technique that creates artificial glaciers, used for storing winter water in form of conical shaped ice heap.
Wangchuk was born in 1966 in Uleytokpo, near Alchi in the Leh district of Jammu and Kashmir. He was not enrolled in a school until the age of 9 year as there weren’t any schools in his village. His mother taught him all the basics in his own mother tongue till that age.
Wangchuk considers himself lucky to have been spared the pains of schooling in alien languages which other Ladakhi children were forced to. His father Sonam Wangyal, a politician who later became the minister in state government, was stationed in Srinagar. At age 9, he was taken to Srinagar and enrolled in a school there. Since he looked different compared to the other students, he would get addressed in a language that he did not understand. Due to which his lack of responsiveness was mistaken for him being stupid. He recalls this period as the darkest part of his life. Unable to bear the treatment, in 1977 he escaped alone to Delhi where he pleaded his case to the school principal at Vishesh Kendriya Vidyala.
Wangchuk completed his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Srinagar (then REC Srinagar) in 1987.Due to differences with his father over the choice of engineering stream, he had to finance his own education. He also went for two years of higher studies in Earthen Architecture at Craterre School of Architecture in Grenoble, France in 2011.
In January 2014, Wangchuk started a project called the Ice Stupa. His aim was to find a solution to the water crisis being faced by the farmers of Ladakh in the critical planting months of April and May before the natural glacial melt waters start flowing. By the end of February in 2014, they had successfully built a two-story prototype of an ice stupa which could store roughly 150,000 litres of winter stream water which nobody wanted at the time.
In 2015, when Ladakh faced a crisis due to a land slide which blocked the Phugtal river in Zanskar and caused formation of 15 km long lake which became a huge threat for the downstream population, Wangchuk proposed to used a siphon technique to drain the lake and water jet erosion to safely cut the edges instead of blasting the lake as was being planned. However, his advice was ignored and blasting work was carried on. On 7 May 2015, the lake finally burst into flash flood which destroyed 12 bridges and many fields.
In 2016, Wangchuk started applying the Ice Stupa technique for disaster mitigation at high altitude glacier lakes. He was invited by Government of Sikkim to apply siphon technique for another dangerous lake in their state. In September 2016 he led a three week expedition to the Lhonak Glacial Lake in North-West Sikkim, which had been declared dangerous for the last few years. His team camped in tents for two weeks at the lake amidst rain and snow, installing the first phase of a siphoning system to drain the lake to a safer level until other measures were taken up.
In late 2016, the idea started gaining traction from the authorities in the Swiss Alps. Wangchuk was invited by the president of Pontresina, a municipality in the Engadine valley, Switzerland to build Ice Stupas to add to their winter tourism attractions. In October 2016, Wangchuk and his team went to the Swiss Alps and started building the first Ice Stupa of Europe together with the Swiss partners.
Awards and Honours
- Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, 2017
- GQ Men of the Year Awards, Social Entrepreneur of the Year, 2017
- Guinness Book of Records for tallest Ice Stupa, 2017
- State Award for outstanding environmentalist by J&K Govt., 2017
- Rolex Award for Enterprise, 2016
- Game Changers Award by Human Resource Club, 2014
- International Terra Award for best earth building, 2016
- Real Heroes Award by CNN-IBN TV, 2008
- The Green Teacher Award by Sanctuary Asia, 2004
- Ashoka Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship, by Ashoka USA, 2002
- Governor’s Medal for educational reform in Jammu & Kashmir, 1996