Floating icebergs to Mid-East

UAE businessman environmentalist hopes to harvest clean, pure water from icebergs

In what could be the first project of its kind, Mr Abdullah Mohammad Sulaiman Al Shehi, managing director of the National Advisor Bureau company, wants to take icebergs from Antarctica to the UAE to provide water to people around the globe.
In what could be the first project of its kind, Mr Abdullah Mohammad Sulaiman Al Shehi, managing director of the National Advisor Bureau company, wants to take icebergs from Antarctica to the UAE to provide water to people around the globe. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NATIONAL ADVISOR BUREAU

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) likes to do things big and bold.

But a concept from an ambitious Emirati businessman environmentalist could create perhaps one of the most surprising sights yet - icebergs floating just offshore.

He is Mr Abdullah Mohammad Sulaiman Al Shehi, managing director of the National Advisor Bureau company. His concept - which the UAE authorities have approved for future action - is simplistic on paper, but staggering when gauging the magnitude of effort involved.

The theme is harvesting of clean, pure water.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Mr Al Shehi stressed the importance of the precious commodity, saying: "This was the basis of my inspiration - the need for water cannot be emphasised enough, not just for the UAE but for the entire world.

"At least 1.2 billion people have no access to clean water. The United Nations estimates that by 2030, 50 per cent of the citizens of this planet would face severe water shortage."

Armed with this knowledge, he wrote a book in 2015. "I took an in-depth look at water harvesting and water-saving mechanisms and I arrived at the theory that icebergs were a solution for the world."

The project is classified as the "UAE Iceberg Project" and the value for realising it has been estimated at about US$50 million (S$68.3 million).

In what could be a first project of its kind, Mr Al Shehi wants to tow gigantic icebergs from the Antarctic to the UAE's coastline, in the emirate of Fujairah, by early 2020.

These are to be melted into pure, polar ice water used for humanitarian and commercial consumption and distribution.

A test run will be attempted early next year before ocean-going vessels try the arduous 12,000km journey to tug the icebergs from Heard Island near Antarctica to their intended destination. The initial attempt will aim to float an iceberg to Australia, or the southern coast of South Africa, Mr Al Shehi added.

The project has attracted the scrutiny of sceptics. Dr Charlotte Streck, founder and director of Climate Focus, told The Sunday Times: "It is an expensive way to address to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle and water over-consumption. It raises equity issues and it also addresses a climate change enhanced problem by further depleting the ice that helps to keep our atmosphere and oceans cool."

Detailing the method in his scheme, Mr Al Shehi said: "This pilot run is very important. We are yet to decide which location we will opt for then we will go in for the realisation of the main part of the project which is to tow the icebergs to the UAE.

"The first important step will be to harvest the fresh water contained inside these icebergs. They contain the freshest water not contaminated by any pollution. In addition, we hope to minimise the need for desalination plants.

"Harvesting this new resource should address this issue. There will be less desalination which means less pollution, not only to the air, since desalination plants emit carbon dioxide, but also to the waters of the Arabian Gulf into which these plants dispose waste making it more saline. This is our priority and objective."

Mr Al Shehi has filed in the United Kingdom some patents for the concept behind the towing and others for reducing the melting rate of the ice during the journey.

He said precise details of the project would be made public in December, but the company is working on a technology which would ensure zero melt during the transportation phase.

Believing the project would be more than just a spectacle for tourists, Mr Al Shehi also highlighted the environmental benefits of the mission. One of them would be to create micro-climates and attract rain in a region which is relatively dry throughout the year.

An average large iceberg reportedly contains some 20 billion gallons of water, enough for one million people to consume over five years. Once tugged to Fujairah, a special process would chip away the icebergs and move them to shore where they would be melted and treated at processing units and stored for bottling.

"The icebergs are expected to cause a unique climatic phenomenon as the cold icebergs would attract the clouds over the Arabian Sea to the centre of the icebergs, thus creating a vortex that will cause rainfall," Mr Al Shehi said in a statement to The Sunday Times.

"It will also assist in providing fresh water to the region, making the UAE a hub for exporting water to the world," he added.

What stands out is the UAE-Iceberg assignment would be the first real attempt to tow icebergs for water resource in the history of mankind.

The significance for the deadline of the project will not be lost on the UAE people.

The UAE will host the Expo 2020 in Dubai. This global event will stress that collaboration and partnership are the driving force in new developments.

Expo 2020 will also showcase and explore what is possible when people and ideas connect.

"We want to take this solution to the entire world," Mr Al Shehi said.

"We know the need for water resources will expand steadily.

"We are optimistic the success for this project is manageable and within the parameters of our technical studies. The risks and success of this project have been weighed."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 05, 2018, with the headline Floating icebergs to Mid-East. Subscribe