Water Research Commission urges SA to 'get in first' and develop the iceberg project
11 September 2018
The Water Research Commission believes that within 20 years, countries will be towing icebergs from the Antarctic to supplement their water supplies.
It also believes if South Africa does not get in first, the country will lose out to other countries in developing the new technology - as it had done in the past with technology it designed but failed to develop.
This emerged from a seminar on the iceberg project convened by the Water Research Commission in Cape Town on Monday, as part of its dialogue series on alternative water supplies.
Dr Shafick Adams, an executive manager at the Water Research Commission, said SA had to diversify its water supply mix if it were to have security of supply.
"We're thinking linear now: More dams, desalination, more of the same… Let's be a bit more adventurous in our thinking," Adams said.
Adams said the concept of breakaway Antarctic icebergs as a water source was increasingly being backed up by scientific assessment and scrutiny.
"It is with this in mind that we need to understand the scientific, environmental and economic feasibility, as well as create awareness."
Cape Town maritime salvage expert Nick Sloane, the man behind the project, has formed the Southern Ice Forum consisting of a range of experts from different countries, who are working on the proposal to tow an iceberg from the Southern Ocean to St Helena Bay, where it will be "mined" for water that will be piped into our supply system.
Sloane reckons the team can supply an iceberg to yield 100 million litres of water a day to Cape Town for a year - about 15% to 20% of the city's requirements.
All that was needed to get the project under way was for the South African authorities to sign an agreement to say they would buy the water once it was here - but so far none of them has bitten.
Swiss funders have undertaken to pay for the project.
Adams said SA needed both conventional water supplies, such as dams, groundwater and desalination, and non-conventional supplies.
SA had been at the forefront of developing some of the unconventional water supplies in the past but had not pursued them.
"South Africa had one of the foremost rainfall programmes in the late 1980s, cloud seeding, but it was stymied. Someone else took it up elsewhere in the world and ran with it."
The same had happened with South Africa's development of reverse osmosis, used in desalination of seawater.
"Reverse osmosis was developed in South Africa, but we were not adventurous enough to develop it further, and now we have to buy the technology back," Adams said.
SA also developed re-using treated sewage effluent about 50 years ago, a technology which Windhoek took up and has been using for 45 years. SA was only now starting to talk about using this technology as a new water source.
Other countries looking at icebergs as a water source include Chile, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.
"We don't want to see in 20 years' time that Chile and Western Australia are way ahead because someone else has done it and we lost out," Adams said.
Sloane said although Cape Town's Day Zero had been avoided because of winter rains, there was a worrying downward trend in the region's rainfall.
"We had three drought years, but this could come back to bite us again."
Iceberg water would not be a main water supply but could supplement scarce water supplies in times of drought.
Sloane said the idea of towing icebergs had been around since the 1970s, when Saudi Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal Al-Saud established a company to look at the possibility and had funded an extensive research programme in the Antarctic.
Norwegian glaciologist professor Olaf Orheim had headed that research. Orheim is now part of the Southern Ice Forum.
"There are about 2 000 billion tons of ice that break off the ice-shelf every year and eventually melt. It's as if Mother Nature is saying: 'We're here, drifting around, you just have to work out how to come and get us'," Sloane said.
Thomas Roos of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research told the seminar there were risks involved and unknowns but, because the iceberg project got international funding, these risks had effectively been "taken off the table".
The benefits were that the iceberg project was large scale and had a short lead time, once proven.
The amount of iceberg water needed could be scaled up or down, which were all operating costs, not capital costs.
"You can fetch one or five, just send more vessels. You can also order the iceberg when you need it," Roos said.
All it needed was for SA to sign an agreement to buy the water.
The iceberg is likely to anchored by a single buoy mooring off St Helena Bay, after it has been "run aground" on the coastal shelf about 30km offshore.
Roos said there could be unintended spin-offs from the iceberg project, such as tourism. Every time it snowed in Ceres, hundreds of Capetonians made the trip to see the snow.
"Having a 30-metre high chunk of ice that you can go and see, I'm sure a significant fraction of the middle class will do that, with positive spin-offs for the local economy."
Adams said the Water Research Commission's task was to inform and make recommendations to government, but not to make policy.
Regarding the iceberg project, he said the Water Research Commission needed to "do the science-policy link".
"We will carry on the discussions hopefully to get to a point where we say: 'Hang on, you can't ignore this anymore.'"