How hauling icebergs could help sustain the world’s thirstiest regions

From Miami to Bangalore, India, to Cape Town, South Africa, some of the world’s biggest cities are facing a shortage of drinking water.

But now an engineering firm in the Middle East is moving forward with an audacious scheme that has been discussed since at least the 1970s: tow icebergs thousands of miles from Antarctica to water-starved regions, where the ice would be brought ashore and used to produce huge amounts of fresh drinking water.

“If we succeed with this project, it could solve one of the world’s biggest problems,” says Abdulla Alshehi, founder of National Advisor Bureau, the United Arab Emirates-based firm. Alshebi said that 1.2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, and by 2050, 50 percent of the world will face water shortages.

“So if we can show this is viable,” he said, “it could ultimately help not only the UAE, but all humanity.”

In November the company plans to begin a pilot study, using satellite imagery to scour the Southern Ocean for a suitable iceberg, lasso it with nets and chains, and then use a small flotilla of boats to tow it 4,000 miles or so to either Australia or South Africa — whichever is closer to the berg’s original position.

If the effort succeeds, the water will be sold to a government. Then the company will attempt to tow a second iceberg on an 8,000-mile journey from the Southern Ocean to the UAE., which is facing its own severe shortage of fresh water.

Meeting the need

The $60-million effort, which will be bankrolled by private investors, could start as soon as next April with the aim of providing drinking water that could be used across the country. Ultimately, Alshehi plans to deliver a steady stream of icebergs to secure fresh water for regions where it’s in chronic short supply.

“The entire world is in need of water, but initially we would be looking at countries such as India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia,” he says.

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