Opinion: The Cold Rush For Freshwater

Some time in the early 19th century this idea emerged and was immediately rejected. It was an idea that could possibly allow many regions to access clean water: harvesting melting icebergs.

Let’s face it: climate change is real. The polar ice caps are melting, causing sea levels to rise. From another perspective, the melting of icebergs and polar ice caps are creating millions of gallons of pristine fresh water that is going to waste in saltwater oceans. These millions of gallons could potentially be turned into a multibillion dollar industry, or alleviate the water shortage around the world.

So what’s the hype about iceberg water? Just like freshly fallen snow, icebergs are very pure – less than 5 ppm in TDS (total dissolved solids), a measurement for water purity. Putting it into perspective: distilled water from labs have, ideally, 0 ppm.  Tap water in the US averages at about 350ppm. Essentially, those melting icebergs at the poles are colossal fresh-water reserves that could theoretically replace the Hoover Dam.

However, the reason the idea to harness this fresh water was rejected in 19th century isn’t too different from the reason it would be rejected today: high costs. Icebergs are huge. Yes we’re talking about those kinds that sank the Titanic. Breaking them down into smaller, transportable bits would therefore require highly advanced machines and technologies.  These machines and special ships designed to cut and transport icebergs are still very costly and too risky for sizeable corporations to invest in. In the 1970s, a Saudi prince hired a French engineer to come up with a way to tug a 100 million ton iceberg from the Arctic Ocean to the Red Sea. The estimated cost was about $100 million, and obviously the plan never actualized.

Let’s disregard the practicalities of it. If it does happen, would it be for the better or for the worse?  Some sneaky millionaire-wannabes  have claimed to have bottled iceberg water,  and sold the water at hundreds of dollars per 300mL bottle. So the question remains; in foreseeable future would this industry be commercialized and exploited such that it becomes "trendy water" purchased by the wealthy, or would it actually be used to supply fresh water to the developing nations?

Ideally, we all hope for the latter. We instinctually cringe and feel a need to change the world when we hear of the misfortunes of developing countries, such as water shortage. With 1.1 billion out of 7 billion people worldwide not having access to fresh, clean water, ideas like harvesting icebergs sound like a plausible way to increase water access. Business leaders of the future are responsible for ensuring that this type of industry does not become monopolized by powerful for-profit TNCs and become a privilege enjoyed by few.

The technology these businesses will use is new and expensive no doubt. This is a reason why many equally advanced technologies available to obtaining fresh water are not commercially used today. One such technology is desalination, which processes seawater into fresh water, using very expensive processes. However, pegging the costs into harvesting icebergs against utilizing the currently available but expensive methods, scientists are still more keen on using the money to further research the current methods. Nonetheless icebergs will not go away quickly, and if we do get desperate enough in the future they’ll always be waiting. Until they melt.