FEATURE - Sea-going water bags to quench world thirst?
Author: Alister Doyle
Nordic Water Supply reckons that demand for clean drinking water will surge and is seeking new contracts from Mexico to Iran on top of a deal towing fresh water in the world's biggest floating bags from Turkey to northern Cyprus.
"Water has to be transported further and further. That means that pipelines become so expensive that our bags are often cheaper," Nordic Water Supply chief executive Jan-Otto Reimers told Reuters.
And the sausage-shaped grey bags, about 200 metres (yards) long and containing 35,000 tonnes of water each, might help coastal areas recover after a disaster. A bag could be used, for instance, if water were infected after an earthquake or cyclone.
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.
Nordic Water Supply also aims to build a new bag in coming years to carry 100,000 tonnes of water - at 350 metres it would be the length of a supertanker. Its main competitor is Aquarius, which has tugged smaller bags to the Greek islands since 1997.
Under its main existing contract, Nordic Water Supply will transport about two million tonnes of water in 2001 to northern Cyprus, under Turkish Cypriot rule since a 1974 invasion.
It aims to expand to more than six million tonnes in 2002 in its grey bags - one of the world's few cargoes where even a catastrophic spill causes no pollution.
The company's first commercial contract dates from 1997 in Turkey.
After the bags are emptied at a special terminal, they are winched round a giant spool on the tug and the vessel, moderately powered at 800 horsepower, returns to Turkey.
ICEBERGS TOO HARD TO TOW?
Reimers says that rival ideas like towing icebergs from the Arctic or filling bags in places where it rains a lot and then shipping them to other parts of the globe are probably uneconomic.
"Water is often available, it's often a problem of distribution locally," he said. "The idea of moving water more globally, from Alaska, Canada, Norway or Scotland means long distances and it's hard to earn any money from it."
A mounting problem is that tourists want to visit sun-drenched spots on their holidays where there is scant water.
"A hundred years ago you couldn't live anywhere without water. Now people choose where to live according to the setting. They don't even ask if there's water when they build a holiday home," he said.
A century ago, people did not have water-guzzling washing machines, swimming pools or lawns, and washed themselves far more rarely. In some developing nations, water consumption habits are starting to imitate those of the rich.
Nordic Water Supply, listed on the Oslo stock exchange since 1998, hopes to build a 50,000 tonne bag within two years before doubling to 100,000. Even the current bags, looking like a giant whale, can support many people walking around on top.
They are made of a polyester fabric coated with plastic and are 2.0 mm (0.08 inch) thick - Reimers compared them to the fabric used in car seatbelts.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE, SOME OF IT TO DRINK
Nordic Water Supply's business is not without risks.
The company had to send up a plane to look for some missing water in the middle of the Mediterranean in December last year when a bag broke loose from the tug in the middle of the night.
It was eventually recovered. New bags are equipped with a radar beacon to help other ships to avoid soft collisions.
Other bags have ripped open, especially at the unloading terminals - probably doing little more damage than giving the Mediterranean fish a strange fresh water taste.
But water is not yet profitable. In the first half of 2001, Nordic Water Supply earned 5.7 million crowns ($647,200) from transporting about 1.0 million tonnes from Turkey to northern Cyprus. But costs were high and it had a net loss of 14.7 million crowns.
Nordic Water Supply's possible projec