As It Happens

How do you fix the water shortage in the UAE? Tow icebergs from Antarctica, one company says

A company in the United Arab Emirates has concocted an unusual plan to deal with the nation's water shortage.
This animation from the UAE firm National Adviser Bureau shows an iceberg parked off the coast of Fujairah. (National Adviser Bureau)

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A company in the United Arab Emirates has concocted an unusual plan to deal with the nation's water shortage. 

Starting in 2019, the Masdar-based National Advisor Bureau Limited plans to start towing icebergs some 10,000 kilometres from near Heard Island north of Antarctica to the coast of Fujairah in the eastern emirates. 

"We are in need of every single drop of water and, unfortunately, these icebergs are disintegrating from Antarctica and they are floating in the ocean due to global warming," Abdulla Al Shehi, the company's managing director, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Once they float in the ocean, they melt, wasting billions in fresh water, which is in need for all humans."

The icebergs hold some 20 billion gallons water each, enough to meet the needs of a million people for five years, according to the environmental consultant firm's estimates. National Advisor Bureau Limited believes it'll lose 30 to 40 per cent of each iceberg during the year-long journey. 

"So the remaining quantity still is huge," Al Shehi said. "You can imagine what is being harvested."

He also estimates the icebergs will help fight the water crisis in another way — by creating a micro-climate that will bring more rain to the region — and provide tourism opportunities, to boot. 
Icebergs contain enough freshwater to meet the needs of millions of people in the UAE, the environmental consultancy firm National Adviser Bureau says. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A new source of freshwater would be a boon to the UAE, where groundwater supplies are predicted to run dry within the next 15 years, according to the Guardian.

Abu Dhabi, seat of the seven member UAE federation and the wealthiest of its emirates, consumes 550 litres of water per person per day, according to the state-run Environment Agency — two to three times the world average of 180-200 litres. 

To ease groundwater use, the UAE has invested heavily in desalination plants, which are not sustainable in the long term.

"[Desalination] not only pollutes the air, but it is costly, it burns fuels and it affects the sea water salinity. So many creatures in the sea are affected by this. It's a big problem, you know?" Al Shehi said.

Abdulla Al Shehi, managing director with the National Advisor Bureau, says his company's plan to tow icebergs from near Antarctica could help deal with the UAE's water crisis. (National Advisor Bureau Limited)

Still, there are many hurdles to successfully carrying out the iceberg plan, Grant Bigg, a Sheffield University earth systems professor and author of the 2015 book Icebergs, told the Guardian.

"There are two major problems," said Bigg. "One is getting a vessel that's strong enough to tow the size of iceberg you need. The second is breakup and melting. It would probably be feasible to get an iceberg a kilometre or two wide up to the Arabian sea, but you'd lose an awful lot of mass on the way. It's quite likely it would fracture before you got there."

With files from Reuters

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