Icebergs in Africa! Ingenious or an excessive waste?

Icebergs in Africa! Ingenious or an excessive waste?

By Isha Desai

Water scarcity is an inevitable bullet that is speeding towards us in the years to come. Numerous equatorial and Middle Eastern countries will face damaging water scarcities of which the United Nations estimates that nearly 600 million children will face such shortages within the next two decades. Radical changes to water consumption in countries like the UAE and South Africa may lessen the severity of the situation, but unorthodox methods of replenishing reservoirs may be needed to sway the outcome.

One proposal that’s been met with great skepticism has been to tow giant blocks of ice towards warmer climates to allow for an alternative source of fresh water. Desalination plants installed in such states involve intensive energy consumption, with the addition of saline waste products disposed of into the sea resulting in severe damage to marine habitats. If such an ordeal is practical in the first place, one would have to overcome a litany of challenges ranging from logistical and organizational to technical aspects – figuring out how to reduce the rate of melting to the least possible degree.

What ideas have we come up with?

There have been attempts to conquer this challenge in the past with schemes involving towing such monstrosities all the way to India or Chile. The Saudi prince Mohamed Al-Faisal proposed and funded such an idea during the 70s, and the European Union also received proposals to tow an iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands. Now, due to shortages faced by South Africa and the UAE, there has been a revived interest in pursuing this project. Professor Peter Wadhams, Dr. Olav Orheim, and Georges Mougin are at the forefront of the most ambitious project since the abandoned Saudi project. They propose wrapping the iceberg in a thermal “skirt” to reduce the melting rate as much as possible. Satellite scans showing the density of ice packs will allow for a closer look to begin with as well as optimal route planning using ocean currents to provide a part of the force needed to tow the giant structure all the way to the UAE (in this case).

It seems like an efficient and environmentally sound way to fulfill large water requirements, yet the cost needed to produce a single liter of clean water is substantial when utilizing surface-based infrastructure, considering melting and storage containment needs. Wondering who on earth would agree to such a high-risk investment? It’s Nick Sloane, the same individual and his team who successfully refloated the Costa Concordia, an immensely complex and challenging feat.

Is it all worth the effort?

The environmental footprint must also be considered while undertaking such a task. There will be at least two tugs and a tanker involved in towing operations. The fuel usage along with its cost could be enormous, leaving us asking the question, is it worth burning tons and tons of fuel, having an impact on the environment, to tow an iceberg of which less than half of the mass will be useful at the final stage, considering investment costs for infrastructure? This is assuming a perfect towing operation all the way from start to finish. It would primarily depend on the severity and risk assessment of the buyer. If no other alternative method exists or can be developed, then yes, it would be worth the risk. If the former can be achieved, then it would seem rather practical instead to pursue the above and reduce the environmental impact. The UAE promoted the scheme by advertising the operation via an animated clip. It highlights a unique tourist attraction garnering large crowds and perhaps what the future holds in store if such a milestone is achieved.

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