Dhaka, Bangladesh
What's the future of mining white gold?

What's the future of mining white gold?

By Atanu Biswas

With an accelerating water crisis all over the globe, where it is predicted that two-thirds of the world's population would have been affected by 2025, a new source of water is glittering. Icebergs that have broken off from Greenland's glaciers and floating off the coast of Newfoundland in North-East Canada are becoming an important source of fresh drinking water. And if someone intends to write a scientific adventure novel on harvesting icebergs for fresh water, it might be too late for that. With the planet becoming increasingly warm, and more and more icebergs melting these days, even local fishermen near Canadian shores are retrieving more chunks of ice to melt and sell to local traders who sell that in glass bottles for around $12 per bottle to a wealthy clientele in Europe, Singapore and Middle-East. There is little doubt that the icebergs are treated as 'white gold'. Icebergs are formed through 'calving', when chunks of ice break off a glacier into the sea. The icebergs then drift with ocean currents and eventually melt. Thus, harvesting icebergs for fine and pure water utilises a resource which otherwise would have been wasted and contributed to global sea level rise. Thus, apparently, harvesting icebergs which are off the Arctic are not hurting the environment. The concept of mining 'white gold' has also been extending to the southern part of the globe, in a different form though. For example, Cape Town in South Africa is facing a severe water crisis like many other parts of the world. And, very recently, a South African mariner named Nicholas Sloane came out with a very unusual solution to Cape Town's water shortage. Sloane wanted to use super-tankers to lasso an 'ideal' sized iceberg in Antarctica and tow it more than 1,600 miles to Cape Town in a 80-90 day journey. It was calculated that in order to supply about 20 per cent of Cape Town's yearly water needs, one needs an iceberg 3,281 feet long, 1,640 feet wide, and 820 feet deep, weighing 125 million tons. The initiative, called the 'Southern Ice Project', with an estimated cost of $200 million, comprises a team of glaciologists, oceanographers, and engineers. The first step is to find an iceberg of the desired shape and size by using satellite data. The iceberg will then be ensconced in a giant net about 2 miles wide and 60 feet high, made out of naturally buoyant ropes that could resist cold temperatures and high friction; it would cost $25 million and would wrap the iceberg like a belt. Two super-tankers would then be used to pull the iceberg through choppy seas, and by the time they reached Cape Town, the iceberg would have shrunk by about 8 per cent, if everything else goes well. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is as large as the area of the United States and Mexico combined. Moreover, the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets combined contain more than 99 per cent of the world's fresh water. And, like the Arctic icebergs drifting towards the Canadian coasts, more than 100,000 Antarctic icebergs slough off the ice sheet every year, which eventually melt and mix in the saline ocean water, in any case. However, when icebergs are fully separated from the Ice Sheet, they have limited impact on the rest of the iceocean system. Thus, apparently icebergs may emerge as a potential and viable source of fresh water to the 2.1 billion people lacking access to safe drinking water worldwide if it does not harm the environment and harmony otherwise. An iceberg of size 3,000 x 1,500 x 600 feet contains somewhere around 20 billion gallons of fresh water, which is enough to fulfill the water needs for more than five years of 1 million people each using 10 gallons of water a day. The concept of iceberg harvesting and a project to tow icebergs was conceived by French scientists and was proposed to Saudi Arabia long back in 1975. Although it was not carried out at that time, there are similar attempts recently. An Emirati businessman named Abdulla Al-shehi announced a $100-150 million dollar project to tow a two kilometres by 500 metre iceberg from Antarctica to the Arabian Gulf to supply the United Arab Emirates with drinkable water, using a patent-pending metal 'belt' to prevent the iceberg from breaking up during its long journey - which has a 30 per cent expected loss of its mass before reaching warm Arabian waters, in any case. Even a trial costing $60-80 million is planned to test the viability of the project by dragging a smaller iceberg a smaller distance to Cape Town or Perth. It is projected that in addition to supplying drinkable water, the project would lessen the environmental impact of desalination and desert rain, and would also boost iceberg tourism at the coast of the Gulf. However, there are several important concerns. First, as the glaciologist Tad Pfeffer thinks, "economically it's probably not all that good an idea, except in dire emergency." But, with severe water crisis around the world, will iceberg harvesting become a regular feature in the near future, say within a decade or two? But, with the tremendous cost associated with the process, will it then meet the demands of the rich only? Icebergs have an important influence on local weather, such as fog production. And melting icebergs have huge impact on climate as well. The total Antarctic melt is equivalent to the addition of 0.1 metre of fresh water per year at the surface, or like adding 0.1 metre of extra annual rainfall. Thus, with more and more companies and nations invariably getting engaged in towing and harvesting icebergs for fresh water in the coming days, is there any serious environmental threat in terms of sea levels or rising temperature or anything else that we can't see now? Remember that with the increasing global warming, we are already facing unprecedented global crisis of other kinds. For example, this August, Iceland bid farewell to 'Ok', which is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. Many more glaciers are expected to follow the same path in the coming years. Also, understandably, it will be easier for Cape Town in South Africa or St. John's in North-East Canada to get fresh iceberg water at a cheaper price. But how easy will it be for Chennai, for example, which is 11,000 km from Antarctica - more than four times the distance between Antarctica and Cape Town - to get this alternative source of water? The problem would remain in many parts of the globe also having severe water crisis. Again, with different countries and companies competing for 'suitable' icebergs near the Arctic or Antarctic ice sheet, will it eventually trigger towards a war over 'white gold'? And, we know that it has already been predicted by many that the Third World War would be over water. Is it time for the international community to frame rules and guidelines for towing and harvesting icebergs, in order to safeguard the all-important environment, and also before an ugly fight is triggered and it is too late?

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