Imagine an oil tanker plowing through the ocean, hauling valuable cargo from resource-rich nations of the world to the countries that need it: but instead of oil, the tanker holds millions of gallons of fresh water.
It’s not a vision from some futuristic film or doomsday novel, but the present-day intention of companies trying to launch the bulk water export business. The idea has been around since the 1990’s, yet no one has succeeded in making it a practical reality.
But last July, the US company S2C Global Systems, Inc. became the latest bulk water wanna-be by announcing it would begin shipping water from Alaska to India within the next six to eight months. Using large class vessels that can hold 50 million gallons at a time, S2C plans to sell the water for both manufacturing and drinking purposes to countries around the Arabian Sea.
“I think it’s a dream,” said Peter Gleick, a scientist and international water expert, in an interview with SolveClimate News. Gleick is President of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. “I don’t think bulk water transfers of any significant volume are ever going to happen, because the cost of moving water, especially across the ocean, is so high.”
Rod Bartlett, managing partner of Alaska Resource Management (a partnership between S2C and True Alaska Bottling), told SolveClimate News that S2C is finalizing legal issues and logistics for a “World Water Hub” on the western coast of India. Once it’s built, the hub will be a distribution point from which the company plans to deliver water to target destinations in the Middle East and northern Africa.
“Every nation within a four-day target of the hub is a potential customer or client that will need fresh water,” said Bartlett. Without revealing specific details, Bartlett added that S2C has received both spoken and “written expressions of interest.”
The water S2C plans to export will come from Alaska’s Blue Lake near the city of Sitka, about 90 miles southwest of Juneau. Since 1999, Sitka has promoted itself as a source for bulk water exports; True Alaska Bottling owns the water rights to 8 million gallons per day from Blue Lake.
As to why humans would want to move water around the world, Bartlett explained: “(You move the water) because you can’t move the population.” Most of the world’s freshwater is found near the Poles, while most people live closer to the equator.
Population growth, urbanization and irrigation place are creating increasing demand for water. But climate change is exacerbating the problem of supply, most notably in the Himalayan region, often referred to as Asia’s water tower.
According to a report from King’s College in London, about two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking, and decreased runoff will affect water levels in ten major rivers. All together, the rivers’ drainage basins are home to 1.3 billion people—close to one-fifth of the world’s population.
Many of them live in India. S2C originally chose to build their hub there because they couldn’t find an appropriate port in the Middle East. But now, said Bartlett, “as you continue to look at the potential in India, it’s going to be a natural place to sell water soon, no question about it.”
Desalinated Water 18 Times Cheaper
The idea of moving vast quantities of water is hardly new. The Romans did it with aqueducts; today, California pipes the Colorado River’s water hundreds of miles into its cities and farms. But when you ship water more than 1000 or 1500 miles, said Gleick, “the diesel costs kill you.”
International water shipments do occur on small geographic scales. In 1997, Greece began shipping water to the island of Aegina, 13 miles from the Greek coast. Singapore currently imports freshwater from Malaysia but vowed to build desalination plants for increased water security. A plan for Turkey to sell water to Israel was recently suspended due to political tension between the two nations.
What S2C has proposed—moving water halfway around the world, 50 million gallons at a time—is on a scale that dwarfs existing bulk water transfer efforts.
The biggest problem, said Gleick, is that S2C will be competing with desalination plants, which are very popular in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are almost completely dependent on desalinated (sea)water.”
Water from desalination plants costs about $1/cubic meter (this price includes the cost of building and running the plant), said Gleick. According to Bartlett, it will cost S2C $18/cubic meter to move the water from Alaska to India.
In order to make a profit, the company would then have to mark up the price before selling to customers. Some of the water will be sold in bulk to pharmaceuticals and manufacturers; the rest will be bottled for drinking. And after days in storage on board the ship, the water will need further processing before it’s clean enough to sell, further adding to the company’s costs.
Despite the abundance of cheap desalinated water, Bartlett believes that desalination has its drawbacks. In an email to SolveClimate News, he wrote that the process of purifying seawater has environmental impacts (such as pollution from the fossil fuels that power the plant). He also said that the desalinated water can leach minerals out of pipes, making the water less palatable.
Gleick acknowledged that the price of desalinated water doesn’t take into account the environmental costs. However, he said that the mineral-leaching problem comes from overly purified water and can be easily solved. Plant operators will either add minerals back into the desalinated water or mix it with existing tapwater. “This is routine (at) desalination plants.”
“(The process of) reverse osmosis can turn seawater into potable water,” said Gleick. After that, “you basically tune the system to the kind of water you want.”
Nevertheless, Bartlett was optimistic about his company’s future. In his opinion, S2C overcame a major hurdle by finding a deepwater port in India that can accommodate the large class vessels. It also helps that the ports at either end are quipped to load and unload the water quickly. Every day that a ship sits in port costs the company $50,000-$60,000.
But all those problems, said Gleick, are insignificant compared to the cost of transport. At the end of the day, S2C’s water is more than 18 times more expensive than existing sources.
Move to Ban Water Exports
Logistics and pricing aside, the mere idea of turning water into another internationally traded commodity has drawn mixed reactions.
Canada, which owns more freshwater resources than any other country, is moving to ban bulk exports. Greenland, Iceland and New Zealand are searching for investors.
Bartlett argued that bulk water trade would hardly make a difference in the grand scheme of things. For context, S2C’s maximum potential allocation from Blue Lake is 12 billion gallons per year (37,000 acre-feet), less than one percent of California’s yearly allotment (4.4 million acre-feet) from the Colorado River.
Bartlett said that S2C hopes to build two more Water Hubs, one in the Caribbean and another near eastern China.
Gleick remained doubtful about the success of the India venture: “I would be hugely surprised if this passed any economic or practical test…until I see a contract and an actual shipment, I’m going to remain skeptical.”
(Photo of Sitka Sound:David Baron)