To fight water crisis, entrepreneur seeks to ship it by boat

The Robin Hood of water argues why we should ship water from abundant places to areas that are thirsty -- and why some countries are using "water as a weapon."
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Nearly 90 percent of the consumption of the world's fresh water supply is used for producing food and energy. In 20 years, water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent. Most water infrastructure is land-based and is tainted by manufacturing and agriculture.

What if water could be shipped from countries rich in water supply like Russia to areas that need water the most?

The man behind this idea: John Barbieri. The entrepreneur says he sees a business opportunity and wants to trade water in a similar way that oil is traded: transfer large volumes of the stuff from areas that have surplus to areas that have long-term water scarcity.

It's a radical idea, but in these times, it's just one of many appearing as leaders attempt to solve our global water crisis.

Barbieri spoke to SmartPlanet about his company, the Natural Resources Corporation.

SmartPlanet: Okay, what's your business model?

JB: There is no real model, other than tinkering with crude oil [vessels], loading and unloading offshore systems such as mooring systems, sub-sea pipelines and onshore storage and distribution. But of course there are vast differences in the cost of liability insurance, labor and even fuel costs.

SmartPlanet: So you want to use existing infrastructure for shipping water. What are the applications?

JB: The heartbreaking tragedy in Japan shows once again — and the Indian Ocean tsunami and the flooding in Pakistan last year — how important an up-and-running system can be for emergency preparedness and response. Whether delivering water for drinking or coolant for damaged nuclear reactors, only this type of system has the ability to rapidly deploy using off-the shelf technology.

SmartPlanet: How is it different than what is available today?

JB: Most water systems today are land-based, altering nature with mega-infrastructure projects and other water works to exploit renewable and non-renewable sources of water, often conveying the water long distances in pipelines and aqueducts.

While water is indeed a renewable resources, some areas draw their supply from fossilized aquifers that cannot be replenished naturally. One such area is the capital city of Yemen, Sana'a. It is estimated that the supply there could be exhausted in eight to 10 years, thereby forcing the relocation of the capital and its one million people. Yemen is a volatile area and a strategic hotspot. Such a calamity would exacerbate an already unstable situation.

Our approach is different in that we would transfer water from coastal areas having abundant resources to coastal areas facing long term scarcity. Over 70 percent of the global population is found within 50 miles of a coast or inland waterway. Think of the major cities in the United States.

SmartPlanet: Why is water security important?

JB: At the local level, economies depend on access to clean water for economic growth.

In many parts of the world it is necessary for human health and economic development. More people have been displaced by water famine in the past decade than by all the wars during this same period.

With climate change, there will be boundary disputes due to the changing course of rivers that establish national boundaries. There will be refugee problems.

SmartPlanet: Where are the abundant resources?

JB: Canada, Russia, Greenland, northern Europe, southern Argentina, Alaska, Malaysia and a few other places.

SmartPlanet: Why do some countries hoard their excess water?

JB: Some do it under the guise of environmental protection, though it is in reality more of a protectionist trade act.

For instance, Turkey has an abundant supply, which could alleviate a lot of suffering in the Arab and Muslim world and in the Mediterranean region, but they hoard it for a political advantage...for negotiating leverage on other economic and military issues.

Turkey’s recent exercise in using "water as a weapon” in a dispute with Israel was, in my opinion, cruel, inhumane and unworthy of a country seeking to gain acceptance in the European Union.

SmartPlanet: How does the water crisis compare to the world's energy crisis?

JB: We are over-dependent on fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. So much so, it is a detriment of our health, the environment and global peace. We need to diversify our energy mix with more renewables, nuclear, and domestic oil and gas production.

[Similarly] we are dependent on only a few ways to supply water.

In California, there's the State Water Project, the Colorado River and Owens Valley for the City of Los Angeles. There needs to be increased use of water transfers, both onshore and offshore, to more efficiently redistribute existing water resources. There should be even more water recycling and desalination.

The water crisis is becoming an energy crisis for much of California. As water levels fall at Lake Mead, which is behind the Hoover Dam, the water intake pumps that supply L.A. with 40 percent of its electricity could fail.

SmartPlanet: So we've established that places need water. How would you get it there?

JB: Ocean-going tankers and barges, offshore mooring systems and sub-sea pipelines have been in use by the marine transportation industry for over 50 years, mostly for the transport of hydrocarbons. Marine transport is today the medium that carries 95 percent of global trade. Existing tankers and barges can be retrofitted and off-the-shelf mooring systems and pipelines can be used to bring water from ships to existing onshore storage facilities, like reservoirs or lakes.

Supertankers can even be retrofitted to be used for storage. They are floating reservoirs. In the not-too-distant future, the aerospace and maritime communities can work together and commercialize advanced composite materials for ship construction, materials stronger than conventional steel, but half the weight. This will revolutionalize the shipping business by making ships more fuel efficient.

Also, a return to sail via wind power, solar electricity and advanced fuels will drive energy costs down. It is cheaper to move water by sea from north to south than it is to move it on land in California because of the huge costs associated with lifting water over the mountains from northern to southern California. If fact, water is the state’s highest energy consumer.

SmartPlanet: How does water quality -- in terms of drinking water, for example -- fit into this?

JB: One-third of China’s rivers are polluted beyond current technology’s ability to clean them up. So this is water that cannot be used for agriculture or urban purposes in a nation already struggling to meet its water needs.

Over-pumping of ground water in many agricultural basins in the United States, especially California, has allowed pesticides and salt water to intrude into the local water supply. In the Silicon Valley, a super high quality of water is needed for manufacturing.

Water delivered by marine transport from B.C. or Alaska is arguably the purest water in the world. Introducing even a small percent of into San Diego’s water supply would drive down water treatment costs and save energy.

SmartPlanet: You talk of an energy crisis, but shipping water around the world doesn't seem very sustainable. How do you respond?

JB: We have a continuing energy crisis, and this has to be measured against the alternatives vis-à-vis energy consumption.

For example, the largest energy user in California is the pumps used to lift water over the mountains from northern to southern California. A better question might be how are alternatives like the status quo -- conventional mega-water projects and desalination -- sustainable, given their reliance on energy.

Comparatively, marine transportation consumes less and costs less. And this efficiency will be improved with the introduction of alternative power down the road and with the introduction of lightweight composite for vessel construction, as I previously discussed.

The water crisis has become an energy crisis in many areas. Only marine transportation has the flexibility to move water around to where it is needed. This is particularly important for humanitarian purposes.

SmartPlanet: How is this supposed to make money? Who are the clients?

JB The same way other water projects make money, by selling to the people who need it, including municipalities and other governments. There might be some private institutional buyers.

Most of the water would be for governments for the people to use for drinking water and agriculture.

SmartPlanet: Can you name your clients?

JB: I cannot, nor the shipping companies with whom we are working. However, we floated the idea to California’s second largest city (San Diego. -Ed.) some time ago and they were interested enough to include it in their long-range water supply plan.

There are others we have dealt with in the U.S. and globally.

The typical water delivery contract in California is 30 years, though some have been signed for 50 and 75 years. This gives the operator a lot of options in terms of exploring more sustainable technologies. Existing tankers are only a bridge to the future. There might be something to say about the recycling of old oil tankers for cleaner uses.

Circumstances in California and globally cry out for new solutions. So we believe the world is now poised to move forward.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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