Home/ Opinion / Columns/  One more cup of iceberg water before you go

This is a watery planet we live on. Over two-thirds of its surface is covered by water; we humans are confined to the 30% that’s land. With all that water, you’d think there would be more than enough for all of us humans. In a sense, that’s right. Going by the sheer volume of water on Earth, there’s no shortage of it.

The problem is, we can’t use much of the planet’s water. The overwhelming majority of it, in fact. Nearly 97% is in our oceans: salt water that we humans cannot consume, at least not until we find cheap ways to desalinate it. Think of that: just 3% is fresh water that we can use.

If that number is sobering enough, consider that we cannot actually use two-thirds of even that fresh water supply, because it is frozen. That’s snow, glaciers and vast sheets of ice like in Greenland and Antarctica.

So, the reality is that only 1% of Earth’s water is in the form of aquifers, lakes, rivers and groundwater. This is what is available to satisfy our thirst for water. This is why water scarcity is a serious concern in many parts of the world, like India. This is why scientists, entrepreneurs and governments are searching for ways to tap water sources that have been so far unavailable to us.

For example, icebergs. For example, a Norwegian company “harvests" icebergs from the Svalbarð archipelago in the northern reaches of that country and melts them. They bottle the water and sell it as “Svalbarði" water. They tout its “pre-industrial" provenance—which is fair enough, because much of the ice has been ice “for up to 4,000 years", says their website. Svalbarði claims the water has “a light mouthfeel, with a slight bite and sweetness".

The price for this pre-industrial mouthfeel? €100 for a 750ml bottle.

So this is a luxury indulgence. This is not quite how we can address the world’s water scarcity concerns. And yet, there’s potential in those icebergs. As Svalbarði also points out on its website, the glaciers of Svalbarð release approximately 5 billion cubic metres of icebergs into the sea every year.

How much is that? Well, to stay in reasonable health, humans are generally expected to drink about 3 litres of water a day each. Add to that the water we use for other purposes—baths, washing our clothes—and a conservative estimate is that on average, each of us humans consumes about 50 litres of fresh water a day. That’s about 20,000 litres a year. That means the annual iceberg bounty from Svalbarð’s glaciers alone can supply the annual water requirements of about 250 million of us: let’s say, the population of Indonesia. And the Svalbarð glaciers are just a small fraction of the glaciers and icebergs there are around the world.

Similarly, the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland “calves" enough icebergs each year to serve the entire population of the US for that year. Also similarly, the icebergs that break off from Antarctica every year represent more fresh water than all of humanity consumes.

Intriguing, thought-provoking numbers? Naturally, there’s more to them than just stating them baldly. For one thing, many people use more than 50 litres daily. There are other, indirect uses of water that I haven’t accounted for. For another, there’s the question of how we take the water locked up in those icebergs to Indonesians or Nigerians or Ecuadorians, or whoever.

Even so, the quick Svalbarð calculation above probably gives you an idea of the potential here. What if we were able to harness that potential on a much larger scale than Svalbarði does?

I use that word “harness" quite deliberately. In his recent book Chasing Icebergs: How Frozen Freshwater Can Save the Planet, Matthew Birkhold, a professor of law and language at Ohio State University, considers this idea. He suggests, for example, that if we towed a 113-million-tonne iceberg—not a particularly big one, as icebergs go—from Antarctica to Cape Town, it could supply 20% of that city’s annual water requirements.

One towed iceberg. Suddenly, icebergs are starting to look pretty promising.

Though of course, there are obstacles to overcome. We can’t simply attach a hook to an iceberg and start towing, as we do to a car. More practical might be plans that are afoot to “catch" icebergs in a gigantic net, or encircle them with a metal belt. Still, how much power will the boat that does the towing need? Besides, it will take at least several days to tow it the 3,500 km from Antarctica to Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa. How much of the iceberg will melt on the way? Can we answer that question accurately?

In fact, the loss due to melting is one reason that the Cape Town calculation does not exactly jell with the Svalbarð one, which you might have noticed. Melting, then, has to be factored into any effort to take icebergs across the oceans.

Yet, an entrepreneur in the Middle East, Abdulla Alshehi, thinks harvesting icebergs is a distinct possibility. In the UAE, desalinating seawater is a common practice, though still far too expensive to be a viable water solution in other parts of the planet. Alshehi believes bringing an iceberg from the Antarctica to the UAE would be cheaper, at $100-150 million, than desalinating an equivalent amount of seawater. That’s even after the iceberg loses perhaps 30% of its mass in transit.

Until all these ideas are tested, we have small-scale operations like Svalbarði and others. Small they may be, but they are now lucrative enough to attract thieves and scamsters. In 2017, a supermarket in Hong Kong tried to sell what it claimed was glacier water, at about $900 per bottle. When sceptics ridiculed this, saying the store was exploiting glaciers in the name of luxury, the supermarket pulled the water off its shelves. In 2019, someone broke into a warehouse in Newfoundland, Canada, and stole 30,000 litres of iceberg water.

That water was to have been used to produce 65,000 bottles of vodka. About 20% of the annual vodka needs of this one resident of India.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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Updated: 02 Mar 2023, 11:31 PM IST
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