While oil tankers entering the Persian Gulf have sparked diplomatic crises, one Emirati entrepreneur would like to offer a warm welcome to a colossus. Abdullah Mohammed Salaiman Al Shehi is funding efforts to tow an Antarctic iceberg to the Gulf for freshwater harvesting.
The director of Abu Dhabi firm National Advisor Bureau, Al Shehi, has publicly pursued the idea since 2015. The UAE’s aquifers will run dry by 2030 at current rates, and around 90% of Earth’s surface freshwater resources are stored in the Antarctic ice shelf.
Critics have raised the point that the project’s enormous financial investment could be successfully applied to improved water management techniques.
Criticism also highlights the iceberg’s potential to dramatically alter the Gulf’s marine ecosystem and to shift weather patterns for the UAE and its neighbors.
The idea has legitimate roots
The plan may sound far-fetched, but Cape Town considered it last year as residents approached “Day Zero” for fresh water access. The plan was deemed inappropriate for Cape Town, although proximity to Antarctica and water stress were much greater for the South African city than in today’s UAE.
Instead of towing a 100-million-ton iceberg, South African authorities focused on reusing waste water and requiring residents to adopt less water-intensive lifestyles. The crisis led to water-saving agriculture techniques, such as nighttime irrigation.
Al Shehi’s plan may reach South Africa. The entrepreneur hopes to execute a trial run in 2021 that would deliver an iceberg either to South Africa or Australia. If the test run succeeds, an iceberg’s nine-month journey to the UAE would follow. The test run alone would cost an estimated $80 million to $100 million.
If Al Shehi does succeed, it will not necessarily spell victory for water security.
An average iceberg contains about 75 billion liters of fresh water. With per capita consumption at 40 liters per day, Al Shehi argues, an average iceberg could theoretically supply water to 1 million people for more than five years.
These calculations require a look at Emirati water consumption. Daily water consumption in the UAE approaches 500 liters per capita, more than 10 times the figure Al Shehi cites in his math. In reality, Emirati water consumption is about 80% higher than the global average.
To put these figures into perspective, $90 million would cover a Palestinian funding proposal to the Green Climate Fund, which would treat wastewater for agricultural irrigation and directly benefit 200,000 Gaza residents with water resources, two times over.
Palestinian water consumption is well below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended minimum of 100 liters per capita per day.
Towing an iceberg across equatorial waters would be vastly more expensive than conventional projects to address water scarcity. So is there a reason to take the self-proclaimed environmentalist and innovator from the Emirates seriously?
The project’s credibility is like Antarctic polar bears … that don’t exist
Al Shehi’s firm released a promotional video for the project in 2017. The animation paints the iceberg’s potential for fresh water access and for tourism.
In the video, polar bears and penguins ride atop the iceberg to a warm Gulf welcome. The bears seem to enjoy the coastal nation’s beach.
There are no polar bears in Antarctica. The video is engaging on YouTube, but the faulty tourist promotion casts doubt on the entire project’s credibility.
But water scarcity is as real as Antarctic penguins
In the UAE, irrigation for agriculture consumes most of the area’s water while droughts and desertification increase. The threat of water scarcity increases as the effects of climate change grow stronger.
Oil wealth can delay a crisis, but it cannot erase the looming threat of water insecurity. The UAE relies on expensive desalination plants for potable water, and “desal” dependency is a real concern.
The energy-intensive process produces salty brine waste that is pumped back into the ocean. The technology is not environmentally sustainable, but it serves an important short-term need.
Energy intensity and waste aside, coastal desalination infrastructure faces serious climate change threats with rising sea levels and extreme weather.
The iceberg’s infrastructure would face these threats, too.
The UAE quietly shuns Al Shehi’s efforts
People say “the tip of the iceberg” because that is exactly what it is: About 90% of an iceberg’s mass is underwater. Maneuvering the water source to the coast of Furaijah would be difficult, but pulling it to shore would be impossible.
Al Shehi’s project would mean building an offshore processing plant to collect and purify glacial melt before routing it to the mainland.
Al Shehi would privately fund the venture because the government is not on board. When Al Shehi’s firm first announced the idea, the UAE Ministry of Energy issued a statement that “as the authority in charge of water affairs, it would like to confirm that such news is just a rumour.”
The ministry gently urged citizens to shun the project.
All the same, Al Shehi welcomed future government involvement: “It is a private venture. It is nothing to do with the government,” the businessman told the National newspaper. “We are working on getting them involved. The government being involved would support the project very much.”
Saudi Arabia floated the idea, but it drowned
The UAE’s Saudi neighbor expressed interest in 1977. Saudi Prince Mohammed Al Faisal sponsored the world’s first International Conference on Iceberg Utilisation for Fresh Water Production, hosted at the University of Iowa.
Al Faisal explained that the conference’s purpose was “to confirm our opinion that [icebergs] can be transported and that it can be done without any ecological difficulties at costs that are reasonable and in quantities that make a difference.”
The first International Conference on Iceberg Utilisation for Fresh Water Production also turned out to be the last.
Al Shehi reaches for the stars amid skepticism
More than 40 years later, the idea has resurfaced. Hundreds of millions of dollars could make Al Shehi’s dream a reality, and the businessman is determined to follow through for declared commercial and humanitarian concerns.
Al Shehi has lamented the fact that “1.2 billion people around the world don’t have access to clean water,” though the WHO estimates the figure at 2.1 billion. Al Shehi aims to combat growing water scarcity and is determined to address the problem with a far-fetched solution.
“People before were skeptical that people would fly in the sky, now it is a reality, they were skeptical people would visit the moon. Science has advanced and knowledge has advanced tremendously,” said Al Shehi.