Tow that Iceberg?

Our water situation is getting worse by the day with a sad reality that conventional water sources are not enough to meet growing freshwater demands of our population. Rainfall, snowfall, river run-offs, accessible ground water are falling short of providing equal distribution of water across the world with climate change adding to the complexity of rainfall uncertainty and extended drought periods.

But more importantly, the quality of water is deteriorating and here are some hard hitting facts:

  • 2 billion people (26% of world’s population) lacked safely managed drinking water services in 2020.
  • Agriculture uses high amount of chemicals (herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) and the run-off of excess nutrients such as reactive nitrogen and phosphorus and other contaminants have worsened in almost all rivers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (UNEP, 2016a) with detrimental effects on people’s health. Adverse impact on human health has been found in people living within a 5 km radius of lakes with extreme turbidity levels that indicates high water pollution such as metals and bacteria.
  • Aquifers are key water reserves, and most groundwater comes from aquifers but due to pumping out of ground water at greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, countries like India are digging deeper wells and paying greater energy costs to pump and treat the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within the aquifers. Since 2012 the number of groundwater pumps has more than quadrupled to over 20 million.

Need to look for unconventional water sources:

For sustainable food production and our livelihood’s overall needs, unconventional water sources are being evaluated as a critical response to deteriorating water quality/scarcity and the good news is that such water resources exist ranging from the Earth’s seabed to its upper atmosphere.

Some of the time-tested methods of generating water are listed here:

  • Rain enhancement through cloud seeding: Several countries have attempted rainmaking by injecting salt/silver iodide crystals into the base of clouds that has shown an increased precipitation of around 15% of the annual norm, but complex physical process and technology limitations are slowing down experiments and more scientific research is needed.
  • Fog harvesting: Capturing atmospheric water vapor for domestic and agricultural use is an ancient practice. The low-impact technology uses material such as mesh nets to capture water droplets from the air, relying on weather systems and physics to collect water rather than requiring energy or other inputs.
  • Rainwater harvesting: Runoff water from rainfall can be captured and stored at household and farm levels. Rooftops in households and small bunds, runoff basins in farm and landscape systems catch the water to be harvested for later use.

Iceberg towing:

Imagine towing an iceberg that measures 3000 feet long, 1500 feet wide and 750 feet deep, weighing around 100 million tons and convert the iceberg to municipal water that can feed 20% of a city’s water needs for one year. Sounds impossible, but climate change has fast tracked the breaking of huge chunks of icebergs in the polar regions with these icebergs drifting across the ocean. In today’s world where we are desperate to look for alternate sources of freshwater, the concept of harnessing icebergs from polar ice caps to drought regions in Africa and Middle East is generating a lot of interest.

Let us look at the impact of icebergs calving away from its parent ice shelves mainly due to earth warming. More than 100,000 Antarctic icebergs melt into the ocean each year. As they drift and its base melts, they release cold fresh melt water altering local ocean properties in several ways. They could block access of penguin colonies to feeding grounds, carry debris , may have several bacteria and viruses that could be infectious to humans, leave plough marks on the sea floor or impact the marine habitat by colossal releases of fresh water. Read this interesting article on a giant iceberg named A-68 that travelled 3 years and drifted close to the Scotia sea(edge of South Atlantic ocean) and released 152 billion tons of fresh water.

Rather than waste this water, if we could get water from Antarctic icebergs to drought-stricken areas with minimal environmental impact, that would be a huge win-win. Tabular icebergs are good candidates for towing rather than icebergs that look like a typical mountain with a peak as those could be dangerous and unstable for sea transportation.

Sounds feasible or not , but a group of glaciologists, oceanographers and engineers are working towards towing enormous icebergs to Cape Town in South Africa and convert iceberg freshwater into municipal water at an estimated project cost of $200 Million.

In Germany, a company called Polewater locates table icebergs in Antarctica via satellite imagery, uses tugboats to maneuver icebergs and bring the icebergs closer to suitable coastal regions such as South America, South Africa and Australia , extracts freshwater by using the cold energy of the sea , pumps out the water into huge waterbags and organizes distributing fresh water to people.

In Conclusion:

Antarctica is covered by ice and is the largest reservoir of drinking water on Earth. As you read this article, billions of liters of pure drinking water are flowing just like that into the open sea. We, and our next generations need clean fresh water and forcing ourselves to treat our existing water over and over or drilling deeper into the ground for new water is not sustainable. India and other water starved nations with its steadily growing population need to look at such unconventional water sources as reliable sources of water in times of climate uncertainty and towing that ‘Titanic’ iceberg may just be a matter of time …Only time will tell …

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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