Category: Environment

Ice Stupa

An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015
An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Project

The Tibetan Plateau is a known for many things. Culturally, it’s the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism and has been likened to the mythical Shambhala and Shangri-la. Geographically, it’s the largest and highest plateau in the world and the nearby Himalayas have the world’s tallest mountains. Due to its altitude, thousands of glaciers have developed on the Tibetan plateau earning its nickname “The Third Pole”. In fact, these glaciers are the largest reserve of fresh water outside the poles and supply many of Asia’s great rivers. The region’s unique geography has made the Tibetan Plateau particularly vulnerable to climate change.

In summertime, the Himalayan mountains serve as a barrier for clouds to induce rainfall in a process known as orographic lift. As a result, the Indian subcontinent experiences a monsoon climate characterized by a dry winter season and a rainy summer season. As global average temperatures rise, climate models predict that this variable precipitation will become more extreme.

Farmers in Ladakh, a territory within the larger Kashmir region of northern India, are already experiencing these effects of climate change. They suffer from acute water shortage in April and May, the last months of the dry season. However, come June, the combination of monsoon and glacial melting leads to flash flooding. Sonam Wangchuk has developed an innovative solution that takes advantage of the Tibetan plateau’s unique geography and the region’s religious culture – the ice stupa.

What is a stupa?

In short, a stupa is a Buddhist monument used for Buddhist meditation. Traditionally, they served as shrines for Buddhist relics. Stupas are a focus for Buddhist circumabulation meditation, done in the clockwise direction. In the Himalayan region, stupas have a characteristic bell-like shape and are typically white in colour. Stupas are common in Buddhist countries because building stupas generates Buddhist merit for one’s next life. Fun fact: Dagoba, the planet where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker, comes from the Sinhalese word for stupa!

Boudanath in Kathmandu, one of the world's most iconic stupas.
Boudhanath in Kathmandu, one of the world’s most iconic stupas.
Credit: Nabin K. Sapkota, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Solution

In Ladakh, the growing season is rather short and ends in mid-September. Further, water is the most constrained right before the rainy season in April and May. How can you allocate water resources to times of the year when demand is the highest and supply is at its lowest? Sonam Wangchuk’s idea was to construct artificial glaciers to remedy the water issues. By freezing stream water in the winter, water can be stored for the spring season when water resources are the scarcest.

This solution is low tech and easy to set up. Water uphill is piped to a base made from a cell phone tower and wood. At night, the pipes are opened and the extreme cold freezes the water almost instantly. The gradual accumulation of ice on the metal and wood base forms a conical shape resembling a stupa. These ice stupas have even been adorned with prayer flags just like their mud counterparts.

The team behind the Ice Stupa Project and two ice stupas in winter.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier Project via Facebook

However, it should be noted that this isn’t a complete solution. First, there are complaints from downstream farmers that they are being deprived of water for their winter crops. This is a diificult debate – right to water between upstream and downstream agents is one of the main challenges in water management law. Second, the infrastructure needs to be improved to better distribute and collect water more efficiently.

Faith and the Environment

Still, I’m a big fan of projects that combine faith and environmental action. I think this project is a perfect example of that melding. Ladakh is about 40% Buddhist so there is a considerable population motivated to construct ice stupas to generate good karma. The project is also partnered with the Drikung Kagyu (འབྲི་གུང་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) Order and a local rinpoche has blessed these ice stupas.

Many religions around the world advocate for a connection with and a love for nature. Although faith around the world is decreasing, I think there’s great value in taking advantage of this advocacy to help fight climate change and environmental damage. Environmentalism and sustainability are inherently interdisciplinary and faith can be used to complement these pursuits. For example, prayer and meditation may help to aleviate eco-anxiety and a religious flavour to conservation may help mobilize people to act in a more environmentally-conscious way.

With a changing climate, ice stupas will become more and more important. These ice structures have great potential to help other high altitude desert communities such as those in Peru. But more importantly, they bring about collaboration between the spiritual and physical worlds.

For more information, please check out the Ice Stupa Project.

Why There Will Never Be A Dolphin Pokemon

Picture of dolphins swimming
Credit: The Miscellanista / Unsplash

***Update: it turns out I was wrong! Pokemon Scarlet and Violet will feature the series’ first dolphin Pokemon: Finizen and Palafin.

The announcement of the newest Pokemon games last week marks the beginning of the ninth generation of Pokemon and a new assortment of elemental creatures to catch and battle. In anticipation for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, Pokemon fans around the world are wishing for new additions they’d like to see added to the current roster of 905. Many current Pokemon are based on real-life animals so it makes sense that fans want a full menagerie in their Pokedexes.

One of the most popular requests is for there to be a dolphin Pokemon and it’s astounding there isn’t one already. Gorebyss looks kind of a dolphin but I don’t really think it is. To me, it’s more of a cross between a pipefish and an oarfish. That would explain why it’s Pokedex entries say it resides in the deep sea, which dolphins do not. There’s also Kyogre which is based on an orca. Although orcas are technically dolphins (they’re the largest species of the dolphin family), they aren’t what you think of first when you imagine your typical dolphin. Pokemon fans are just asking for a water/psychic or water/fairy bottlenose dolphin, simple enough right? While many fans may attribute the lack of a dolphin Pokemon to a disobedient Gamefreak, there’s actually a more sinister reason.

An illustration of an oarfish
Real-life Pokedex entry: The oarfish is a fish found in the ocean depths. It is so rare that it has been rarely caught alive and it is believed to be the inspiration for sea serpent myths. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s Cetacean Fixation

Japan has a long history of whaling. While the practice began in the 12th century, it did not reach its full stride until the turn of the 20th century when the Japanese adopted modern whaling technologies from Norway. Commerical whaling continued until the International Whaling Comission’s moratorium in 1986. However, Japan still continued to hunt whales for the sake of scientific research.

Although the practice garnered heavy criticism internationally, the Japanese defended the practice by asserting it is for the sake of scientific research and maintaining cultural heritage. Because most of the world’s whales are endangered, the Japanese government claimed this research is critical for studying the status of their populations. However, those in the international sphere said Japan was merely conducting commercial whaling under the guise of research. In 2018, Japan left the International Whaling Comission and has resumed commercial whaling in its territorial waters.

Historic Japanese manuscript scroll depicting whaling in Taiji
Historic Japanese manuscript scroll depicting whaling in Taiji. Credit: Tennojiya Shinsuke owned (April 1857), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dolphins in Japan

Of the many historic whaling towns in Japan, the most well-known is Taiji in the Wakayama prefecture. Taiji was a hub for Japanese whaling. Although the town’s whaling operations are much smaller than before, its tradition and history with dolphins is alive and well. Taiji celebrates an annual dolphin drive in which hundreds of dolphins are corralled into a shallow cove to be captured or slaughtered. Usually, after a long day’s work of trapping the dolphins, the animals are left to suffer overnight before they are killed. Supposedly, this is because the meat tastes better that way but it is more likely that killing dolphins in the early morning allows the fishermen to conceal the bloodbath.

Taiji looks like a typical Japanese fishing town.
Taiji looks like a typical Japanese fishing town.
Credit: BD Padgett, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Officially, the reason for the dolphin drives is for dolphin meat. However, the consumption of dolphin meat in Japan has been declining and the meat is frequently labelled as whale meat to garner a higher price. The biomagnification of mercury in seafood has also raised health concerns about eating dolphin meat. Instead, there are also two other, more prominent reasons for this practice. For one, selling live dolphins to aquariums has become increasingly lucrative. Cetacean captivity is a controversial topic with several concerns over the ethics of keeping intelligent animals, the adequacy of aquarium facilities, and the usefulness of captive cetacean research.

The second reason is for “pest control”. Japanese cuisine is well-known for its seafood (think sushi, sashimi, and nigiri at your local Japanese restaurant). In the face of depleting world fisheries, Japanese fishermen blame dolphins for their reduced catches. The idea is that because dolphins eat fish, they are in direct competition with Japan’s appetite for seafood. The Japanese government perpetuates this belief by readily issuing hunting permits for these animals. Furthermore, there is an active coverup of these dolphin drives – the drives are heavily monitored by police, foreigners are looked at with suspicion in Taiji, and the slaughters are done covered in tarps to avoid any pictures and video taken of the event. Unfortunately, unlike whales, there is no international body to regulate killing dolphins.

It should be noted that Taiji is not the only place in the world that participates in dolphin drives. Places like the Solomon Islands and Faroe Islands also hunt dolphins but the Taiji dolphin drive is one of the world’s largest hunts. Because of its size, it has received the most attention and backlash. Additionally, with its hidden, more controversial reasons for the drive, Taiji is a big target for activism and objection.

No Dolphin Pokemon

The multi-faceted controversy of dolphins and Japan, from animal welfare to environmental issues to cultural heritage, is a really sticky situation. I suspect this is why we don’t have a dolphin Pokemon yet and will probably never get one. The Pokedex does have whale Pokemon; both Wailord and its preevolution, Wailmer, resemble blue whales. Therefore, I don’t think the issue is whaling in general. Instead, the controversial Taiji dolphin drive may explain why we still don’t have a dolphin Pokemon.

It is well known Pokemon likes to avoid controversy. Porygon hasn’t appeared in the anime since that one episode. Jynx has been officially purple since Generation 3. Gambling has been absent from the main series games since Generation 5. For a franchise as beloved as Pokemon, a potential controversy with a dolphin Pokemon may not be worth the satisfaction of millions of fans around the world. Sorry Pokemon fans – until Taiji’s cruel and controversial practice comes to an end, we won’t be getting a dolphin Pokemon anytime soon.

For further reading, please check out the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project and the Dolphin Project.

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