HOT PUR­SUIT IN SNOWY SI­ACHEN

Hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist taps into a hot water source at 3,540 me­tres near Army base camp

India Today - - SCIENCE - By Asit Jolly

The In­dian Army on the world’s high­est bat­tle­field, Si­achen, now has a ma­jor ad­van­tage over its Pak­istani ad­ver­saries. And no, it is not su­pe­rior gun po­si­tions glow­er­ing over the Hi­malayan glacier, but the prospect of peren­nial hot show­ers where ex­treme win­ter tem­per­a­ture plum­mets to mi­nus 40 de­grees Cel­sius and the freeze claims more lives than bul­lets.

This is the in­cred­i­ble gift that Ritesh Arya, 44, a hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist spe­cial­is­ing in high al­ti­tude ex­plo­ration, gave the troops at Si­achen Base Camp One on April 19 when he un­be­liev­ably tapped into a geo­ther­mal ( heated) water source at 3,540 me­tres. The re­sult: End­less sup­ply of hot water in a place where it takes thou­sands of gal­lons of diesel and kerosene to keep the kitchen and laun­dry run­ning.

Be­sides sav­ing In­dian sol­diers from chilblains, the avail­abil­ity of nat­u­ral warm water will also sig­nif­i­cantly slow down fur­ther degra­da­tion of the highly pre­car­i­ous glacial ecol­ogy caused by the con­stant burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els. “This is a dream come true. No­body would have ever thought it would be pos­si­ble to drill into a hot water source on these bone- chill­ing heights. But I was cer­tain it could be done,” says Arya.

Within walk­ing dis­tance of the mighty, 70- km- long glacier’s rapidly shrink­ing snout, ‘ Arya’s well’ pro­duces 12,000 litres of water ev­ery hour. Though in­fused with sul­phur, un­drink­able and only luke­warm, the water could help un­ravel a host of never- be­fore pos­si­bil­i­ties to make sol­dier­ing in Si­achen a lit­tle less dif­fi­cult.

The Army had given Arya’s drilling com­pany, Arya Drillers, a con­tract in June 2011 to ex­plore a hot water source for the troops. This, af­ter ef­forts to har­ness a ther­mal spring at Sa­soma, 7 km south of the base camp, had to be aban­doned amid ob­jec­tions from lo­cal vil­lagers who use the pre­cious re­source for medic­i­nal pur­poses.

A veteran of more than a thou­sand borewells in some of the most treach­er­ous lo­ca­tions across Ladakh, in­clud­ing an arte­sian well ( gusher) at Chushul that won him a place in the Guin­ness Book of World Records in Novem­ber 2004, Arya was sure he would find hot water in the glacier’s in­nards. Arya’s com­pany is es­ti­mated to have drilled nearly 500 fresh­wa­ter wells over the past 12 years. Eleven years ago, while drilling his first fresh­wa­ter wells for the troops in Si­achen, he had spot­ted a lo­ca­tion along a zone of frac­tured gran­ites at the edge of Base Camp One.

From the first trickle of warm water in Oc­to­ber 2011, the drilling team’s real eureka mo­ment came six months later when both the flow and tem­per­a­ture sus­tained through Si­achen’s snow- bound win­ter. Ex­cited Army jawans rushed out to wash uten­sils or sim­ply de­light them­selves in the warmth of Arya’s ‘ magic well’ when the gusher was put through its final test on the af­ter­noon of April 19.

“He has a rare in­sight that flouts con­ven­tional knowl­edge, that I think is based on his train­ing as a ge­ol­o­gist,” says Pro­fes­sor Ashok Sahni, 71, one of the coun­try’s best- known geo­sci­en­tists, who has nom­i­nated Arya for this year’s Na­tional Geo­science Award. His ci­ta­tion reads: “For his pi­o­neer­ing work in pro­vid­ing abun­dant, clean and potable water to the Army, Ti­betan set­tle­ments, monas­ter­ies and the com­mon man in the high Hi­malayan ter­rain of Ladakh and Karako­ram.”

What Arya re­ally dreams of is com­plete de­mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the Si­achen Glacier. “Si­achen means an abun­dance of wild roses and that is how it should be,” he says.

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