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      Fresh drinking water is a commodity, which is often taken for granted in modern countries, including the United Arab Emirates. Simply turn on the tap and out it flows. But although the world's supply of fresh water is abundant and easily enough to meet human demands for many years, regional water scarcity is a common problem in many parts of the world today.  The Middle East is a prime example. Arid landscapes, low rainfall and fast depleting underground water tables makes the supply of fresh water one of the most pressing issues facing regional governments and municipalities today. Add the fact that the Middle East has the fastest growing population in the world into the equation, and therefore an ever-increasing demand for fresh water, and the scale of the problem rises further.  In the Gulf there is a heavy dependence on desalination which requires huge amounts of energy, but while desalinated water is used domestically for washing, filling swimming pools and watering golf courses, it is rarely used for drinking bottled mineral and drinking water are favoured by most.  While some countries have more fresh water than they need, others do not, which makes water a valuable - and tradable - commodity. But in order to sell water across borders and even seas, transporting it becomes a major factor.  In an often quoted comment, the World Bank's Water Resources Manager, John Hayward, said in 1996: "One way or another, water will be moved around the world as oil is now."

     Proposed solutions to the problem have included such far-fetched schemes as towing icebergs from the Arctic to regions where water is in most demand to the more realistic, but costly, concepts of using tanker ships or the construction of pipelines. To convert an oil tanker to transport fresh water all traces of crude oil have to be eliminated using extensive sand-blasting and resurfacing of the inner hulls with stainless steel, while pipelines become more expensive the further they go.

     There is, however, an alternative: the use of giant bags - which can be filled with fresh water in one country and towed across the sea to another where water is in greater demand - is fast being recognised as the most cost-effective method of bulk transportation of water.  The system works by filling a giant bag with fresh water at a coastal filling station in the supply country, which is then towed by a tugboat to the receiving country where the bag is unloaded. By using three different bags, a cycle is established whereby the newly delivered bag is emptied at a discharging terminal linked to the receiving country's water distribution infrastructure as the tug picks up the empty bag which was used previously and returns to the filling station where the third bag is already filled and waiting for collection. This enables the tug to be fully utilised while ensuring the supply never runs dry.

     Drinking water is lighter than seawater and so the bag floats on the surface, making it easier to tow, while empty bags can be reeled onto the deck of the tug, enabling it to return to the filling station at high speed.


     One of the pioneers of this process is Nordic Water Supply ASA (NWS), which signed its first commercial contract in October 1997 with the Ministry of Energy in Turkey to transport fresh water to northern Cyprus, which has been under Turkish Cypriot rule since the 1974 invasion. Its main competitor is Aquarius Holdings Limited, which has tugged smaller bags from mainland Greece to nearby resort islands since 1997, helping the Greek tourism industry cope with the increased demand for drinking water during the peak holiday season.


      Nordic Water Supply was established in Norway in 1979 and has been listed on the Oslo stock exchange since 1998. It developed a prototype water bag, which could hold 10,800 tonnes of water in 1994 and has continued to develop its technology with the introduction of 20,000 tonne bags in 1998 and 30,000 and 35,000 tonne bags in 2001.

     "The basic premise for the endeavour is the fact that the global demand for water is increasing rapidly and that the supply of water cannot keep pace with the accelerating increase in demand in many areas of the world," a company spokesman said.

     "The advantages of using bags compared to ships are manifold. Investment costs are, amongst other things, significantly lower. Water transport based on water bags also provides lower operational costs due to lower fuel consumption and crew requirements.

     "Logistics related to the bag are more effective, and requirements for port facilities are substantially less demanding than for ships. In total, these advantages provide a significant cost benefit compared to ships on short transport hauls and, with the development of larger bags, the advantages may be maintained over longer distances."

     NWS's 30,000 tonne water bag is 165 metres long, 30 metres wide and seven metres deep and contains enough water to supply 150,000 households with fresh water for one day, although the company aims to build a new bag in the coming years to carry 100,000 tonnes, which at 350 metres would be the length of a super tanker.

     "The water bags are constructed from high strength, lightweight, flexible and reinforced plastic material," the spokesman explained. "Front and stern have a uniquely designed steel unit to provide a safe and good hold for loading and discharging water, as well as for towing and anchorage.  "The water bags have a unique and proven design which enables NWS to manufacture and operate very large bags in open waters with rough seas. A reliable and steady supply of fresh water on a continuous basis is ensured by always having a full water bag ready in position when one is empty. This is made possible by operating three water bags by one tug. One is loaded, one is in tow or being returned and one is emptying at a discharging terminal.

     "The size of the water bag is decided by a calculation based on the required rate of delivery and towing distance and the low towing drag results in very low fuel consumption compared to more traditional transport methods, thus lowering the total cost."

     Under its existing contract, NWS will have transported about two million metric tonnes of water from the Turkish mainland to northern Cyprus in 2001 and aims to expand to more than six million tonnes in 2002, as well as seeking new contracts in other countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

      However, it hasn't all been plain sailing. The company had to send up a spotter plane to locate some missing water in the Mediterranean when a bag broke loose from the tug in the middle of the night in December 2000, prompting the witty newspaper headline: 'Water Lost at Sea.' It was eventually recovered and new bags are now equipped with radar beacons, which also help other ships avoid soft collisions with the bag.  Early teething problems when the Turkey to northern Cyprus operation began in 1999 also resulted in several bags being ripped open, especially at the unloading terminals - although drinking water is one of the world's few cargos, where even a catastrophic spill causes no pollution, except perhaps giving the fish a strange fresh water taste.

      But NWS has invested heavily in its water bags and overcome its initial problems to establish a reliable and continuous service to northern Cyprus since August 2000. It is now looking to expand further to countries, where fresh water is most in need, including other areas of the Mediterranean, islands in the Caribbean and the Middle East.

      In October 1999 the world's population finally reached six billion, having doubled since 1960, according to the United Nations. By 2025, it says, two thirds of the world's population will have limited access to fresh water and half will have an acute shortage, while the World Health Organisation has estimated that water consumption will have to be halved by 2025 if nations fail to address imbalances in global water supply and demand.  Just as camels evolved humps and the Romans built aqueducts, it seems the future of transporting water may lie in giant, floating plastic bags.

     

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