There are those who travel and those who don’t just travel; there are those who change and those who effect change. In the relatively unknown, desert mountain valley of Spiti, Ecosphere belongs to the latter category.
Ecosphere is an extraordinary, award-winning social enterprise with a focus on conservation and responsible tourism in the Spiti Valley. Started by Ishita Khanna, Sunil Chauhan, Sonam Angdui and Cherring Norbu, Ecosphere promotes sustainable development by harnessing solar technology in the valley.
Located high in the Himalayan Mountains, the Spiti Valley is dotted by vast stretches of white desert. A sparsely populated area in the north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh, it spans an area of approximately 8000 sq km and is flanked by Tibet & Ladakh. The area endures a 6-month-long winter, during which temperatures fall to as low as -30 degrees centigrade. Its high altitude (the average habitable altitude is 3700 meters above sea level) and extreme winter climate result in sparse vegetation.
A scarcity of wood used for fuel, which must be transported into the valley, “results in high emissions of greenhouse gases and also leads to an increased dependence of the locals on the government,” says Sunil Chauhan, co-owner of Ecosphere.
“The locals spend two to four hours a day [burning] wood, coal, dung and other bushes to cook, heat water and warm their houses. This leads to pressure on the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. The shortage of fuel (bush and dung) and the high price of imported conventional fuel results in a situation of energy vulnerability.”
But the amount of sunlight in the valley offers many possibilities, says Sunil, who took to trekking from the time he was 18. “We saw how this extremely cold valley has an abundance of sunny days, almost 250 days a year. Sun was the most natural resource we could use. The usage of solar passive technology has proved to be a boon here.”
The houses in the valley have windows, floors and walls that are designed to gather, stock up, and distribute solar energy as heat in the winter and to reduce excessive heat during the summer.
Ecosphere has also worked on building green houses that can be used to grow vegetation. Like wood, food must either be transported to the valley or procured by villagers who travel long distances. To promote self-sufficiency, Ecosphere has “deployed improved green houses that make it possible to cultivate vegetables in extreme climatic conditions and thereby also reduce the carbon footprint,” says Sunil.
Ecosphere has also developed a new design based on the use of local materials such as mud brick, local wood, and straw, which allows farmers to save costs. Reports suggest that farmers of the Spiti Valley, most of them women, were able to generate Rs. 1500 per month and save an equal amount of money with a 50 sq m greenhouse and increase their income by 50%. Ecosphere has so far built over 50 green houses in the Lahaul & Spiti valley and another 25 in Lahaul.
As a research and cultural centre for Buddhists, Spiti is also home to monasteries and nunneries. “We have also worked with monasteries in Spiti and Kinnaur by facilitating solar water heaters. They are at times transformed [into a] community bathing area as well as [a] classroom for teaching,” Sunil says.
Ecosphere has also helped by setting up subsidized solar power plants in these areas. Villagers pay a monthly charge and gain from the power plants and wind mills.
“Over 300 families have been benefited by the solar passive houses and improved greenhouses. Over 12 institutions (like monasteries, nunneries, old age home, girls’ hostels) have been supported with the solar passive works, greenhouses, solar baths and solar geysers,” says Ishita, another co-founder of Ecosphere.
“[In addition], two villages (over 60 families and one monastery) have been electrified using solar energy, and a hybrid of a solar, wind and a pedal generator hybrid.”
Ishita, an Ashoka fellow, was conferred the title of MTV Youth Icon in 2008 and received the Real Heroes Award from CNN IBN.
Effective change is change effected, according to Ecosphere’s philosophy. The next time you travel, what change would you like to see or be?
About the Author:
Megha Chaturvedi fled the corporate world in India almost 2 years ago. Since then she has explored various quaint towns across India and crossed a Himalayan glacier in order to study rural SME’s. In the past she has had stints at Daily News & Analysis (DNA), ANI – Reuters and also worked for a digital brand solutions agency. A connoisseur of art, dance and music, she has recently founded a destination branding agency.
The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.