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Abu Dhabi Firm Floats Plan to Tow Icebergs to UAE for Drinking Water

National Advisor Bureau, a consultancy based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has launched the Emirates Iceberg Project. The aim? To transport icebergs from Antarctica to the Arabian Peninsula to harvest ice for drinking water.

At present, the UAE is dependent for its water on three sources: desalinated water, groundwater and recycled water. However, population growth coupled with high consumption rates are leading to a water crisis.

In 2015, a study conducted by the World Resources Institute ranked the UAE at the first level of water stress by 2040. The study stated: ‘Fourteen of the 33 likely most water-stressed countries in 2040 are in the Middle East, including nine considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0: Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon. The region, already arguably the least water-secure in the world, draws heavily upon groundwater and desalinated seawater, and faces exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future.’

Professor Gokce Gunel suggests that the high consumption rates could exhaust natural water resources in the UAE within 50 years. The average daily per capita water use is estimated at 360 litres. In Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the emirates, this figure rises to 550 litres per day, two to three times the world average of 180-200 litres.

In an attempt to tackle the issue of water availability, National Advisor Bureau has come up with the idea of towing icebergs from Antarctica, some 10,000km away. An average iceberg contains more than 20 billion gallons of water, which could provide enough for one million people over five years, the company said.

“The main reason for executing the project is to harvest fresh water from the iceberg,” Abdullah al- Shehi, the company’s managing director, told Fanack. “Due to global warming, many icebergs break free from Antarctica and float in the ocean until they melt, wasting billions of gallons of fresh water each year. Currently, 1.2 billion people do not have access to clean water, so we thought of utilizing icebergs as a solution.”

He described how the plan would work: “After selecting the iceberg using satellite imaging, the iceberg will then be surrounded using a ‘fishing net’ method and towed with barges. It is expected that it will take one year for the iceberg to reach the UAE. Once here, it will be harvested for fresh water utilizing specially made equipment such as ice crushers.”

Icebergs do not melt easily since 80 per cent of their mass is below the water line and the white exposed ice reflects sunlight.

He believes the project will help support the international effort to combat global warming in many ways, including “providing a new drinking water resource to the world; making the world greener by utilizing the harvested water for farming the Empty Quarter sand desert; reducing pollution from desalination; and lowering the sea level caused by melt water”.

No information could be found to support these comments, and the cost of the plan was not forthcoming. In May 2017, the UAE’s Energy Ministry issued a statement denying ‘reports’ that an iceberg was already in the process of being imported, without specifying the reports to which it referred.

The current venture is still in the planning stages, although National Advisor Bureau hopes to begin towing the first iceberg in early 2018. The company said it will seek government approval once a feasibility study is completed.

Whether the project is indeed feasible is unclear. “With so few details given it’s hard to take this seriously as anything but a stunt,” Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute for climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, told Newsweek.

He added that the reason icebergs do not naturally occur far north of Antarctica is the result of a strong polar current and rough conditions in the Southern Ocean. “Breaking through this would be a major feat and would depend on favourable conditions that are not guaranteed.”

For now, the project remains little more than an idea that fails to address the real reasons behind the UAE’s water crisis.

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