Water crisis: Icebergs could float to the Cape's rescue

01 April 2018 - 00:00 By BOBBY JORDAN
Antarctica. File photo.
Antarctica. File photo.
Image: Andrew Mandemaker

An unlikely plan to tow icebergs from Antarctica to drought-stricken Cape Town has sparked a joint venture between a famous South African salvor and a Swiss water technology company.

And a separate business team from the Middle East has joined the project to use Cape Town as test bed for similar iceberg plans in the northern hemisphere, where thirsty cities are feeling the impact of population growth and climate change.

"Operation Cape Iceberg" is being led by Nick Sloane, who salvaged the Greek cruise liner Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy six years ago. He says Cape Town is in the ideal location to "hijack" free-floating icebergs - made up of fresh water - that drift to within 1200 nautical miles of the coast.

After being wrapped in a synthetic "skirt" - made in India - and towed by two super tankers, the icebergs could be moored off St Helena Bay on the West Coast and mined to provide the same amount of water as costly desalination and drilling programmes.

"I presented to [Swiss company] Water Vision in February and CEO Wolfgang Foerg immediately liked the idea," Sloane said.

"We now have agreed that this project needs exposure to get the public and government at all levels to understand and accept that this is a very real, viable alternative."

He said a Norwegian glaciologist and expert in iceberg dynamics had collaborated in the project. "All parties are confident that the Cape target for iceberg 'transport and harvesting' is the most favourable location on Earth due to the passage of icebergs around the Southern Ocean ... and the intended harvesting location," Sloane said.

Foerg said: "Together as a professional team we want to provide solutions. For several people it may sound like a crazy story. To me it is realistic ... It is a fact that the climate has been changed and that means we have to take on this challenge and have a look - address the issues that in the years before were a little bit strange."

A business consortium from the United Arab Emirates, which has its own iceberg plan, is in discussion with Sloane regarding a collaborative research effort.

Berg river, with a difference

More than 2000 billion tons of icebergs break off Antarctica annually. An iceberg measuring 800m x 400m x 220m deep contains 70 million cubic metres of fresh water - enough to provide Cape Town with 135 million litres a day for a year

But the plan has met scepticism. Cape Town mayoral committee member for water Xanthea Limberg said the city had rejected the concept as too expensive when considering emergency water procurement options. She put the price at about R1.2-billion.

Neil Malan, an ocean scientist with the South African Environmental Observation Network, highlighted in a recent article the physical scale of the towing task and questioned whether it was possible.

"Despite being mathematically and theoretically possible, it has been these physical constraints which, in the some 200-year history of 'let's go get us an iceberg', has kept anyone from actually trying it," Malan said.

In response, the pro-iceberg lobby said towing smaller icebergs was feasible, and if one was found north of 60°S it would not be subject to the Antarctic Treaty which governs the use of Antarctica and its resources.

But Zolile Nqayi, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, questioned the wisdom of removing Antarctic ice from its natural environment: "Any unnatural activity that disturbs the processes is likely to have an unimaginable impact on all the ecosystem services provided by the Southern Ocean ecosystems," Nqayi said.

Towing an iceberg "would not only be very expensive and damaging to the environment" but there were cheaper and more environmentally sound solutions.