As demand for freshwater increases globally, a few companies and water-rich countries envision water shipped in large tankers designed for oil as the next big supply-side solution. wo American companies and a small Alaska city are drawing closer to an agreement to export water to the Middle East.
True Alaska Bottling (chief executive Terry Trapp) holds the rights, at a penny a gallon, to export 2.9 billion gallons (10.9 billion litres) per year from the Blue Lake reservoir owned by the city of Sitka, Alaska. The company's partner in the venture, San Antonio-based S2C Global Systems, is negotiating with developers in India to build facilities at a deepwater port south of Mumbai.
Sitka and Alaska Resource Management LLC (ARM), the partnership formed by the two companies, are seeking to be the first to introduce bulk supplies of freshwater, transported in huge tanker ships, as a new commodity in global trade. The concept is straightforward. Where local supplies cannot meet demand, a small group of wildcatter companies and water-rich countries are positioning themselves to provide large shipments of water via 80-million-gallon capacity tanker ships and floating polythene bags (in the industry parlance: bulk water).
'The concept we have with our partner is constructing a water depot in India or the Middle East where water is unloaded and stored with an adjacent bottling tank,' said Trapp. 'The water would then be distributed to countries in 2.5 L or 5 L containers.'
The consequences of bulk water exports are not nearly as clear cut. Proposals to export water supplies from their natural basins have sparked fierce political resistance in some parts of the globe. The Great Lakes region of the US Midwest established laws and regulations over the last decade that sought to ban the practice. Some fear that reliance on imports could perpetuate water-wasting practices in dry regions. In addition, the capacity of wealthier regions to afford their water in 5 L containers could widen the economic and quality of life gulf between rich and poor countries.
Bulk water transfers are not new. Diversions out of river basins both within and between countries have occurred for decades: Singapore imports water from neighbouring Malaysia; Lesotho sends water to South Africa via the Highlands Project; Southern California exists as we know it today because of water channelled from the Sierra Nevada hundreds of miles to the north. Historically, engineers have moved water through pipelines, canals or rivers under government control and oversight.
What is new is the idea of shipping water in tankers across oceans. It differs in scale and the notion that huge commercial advantages exist when a scarce commodity is supplied to eager communities willing to pay the price.
In its bid to pioneer the global bulk water trade, ARM is focused on sales to water-stressed areas of the Middle East, northern China, southern India and parts of Africa as potential export markets. Although Sitka has made public infrastructure investments to make it easier to load water tankers in Alaska, ARM has not yet found a place to unload. A potential deal to secure off-loading facilities in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, fell through earlier this year because the company could not get the real estate next to a bottling plant. Currently, S2C Global is discussing a site near Mumbai, according to Trapp.
Although no significant volumes of bulk water have yet been sold, a phrase on Aqueous International's stationary captures best the prevailing mood of an industry that sees big profits in moving water by tanker: 'Not a dream - inevitable!' Sitka's mayor, Scott McAdams, has similar sentiments. 'I think the idea of selling bulk water to a thirsty planet has merit but it's time has not yet arrived,' McAdams said. 'Watersheds around the planet are under assault. The value of a commodity like water is only going to go up over time.'