iceberg

South Africa is running out of water. A years-long drought has left the country, including port city Cape Town, mired in a national disaster that could see the taps run dry as soon as 2019. Currently, residents are living with a 50-liter per day water consumption limit to stave off the ominously nicknamed “Day Zero,” and the best solution so far has been to reduce water use.

Don’t panic! Salvage master Nick Sloane says he’s got a better idea.

“We want to show that if there is no other source to solve the water crisis, we have another idea no one else has thought of yet,” Sloane told Reuters on Monday. Sloane’s novel plan? To drag an iceberg from Antarctica to South Africa.

Sloane said that his team could ensnare icebergs in fabric coverings to keep them insulated and use tankers to tow the icebergs to the mainland. After procuring an iceberg, a milling machine could chop the ice up into a slurry so it could be rapidly melted and doled out to the people. He estimates that an iceberg far smaller than the Delaware-sized behemoth that broke off Antarctica in 2017 could yield around 150 million liters every day for a year. While this would only meet about one third of the city’s water needs, it would certainly help mitigate the crisis.

iceberg.
An iceberg that could yield 150 million liters of water per day for a year would weigh around 55 billion kilograms.

Sloane is a director at Resolve Marine Group, a company that specializes in emergency response and salvaging. When your cruise ship is sinking, you might call him. When you stumble upon the remains of Atlantis, maybe you’d give him a ring. He probably isn’t your first option when you need water.

Still, Sloane’s proposition is predicated on the fact that South Africa is in a desperate situation with very few options. But as it turns out, he’s not the first person to suggest harvesting water from icebergs. In fact, the 1985 Richard Pryor film Brewster’s Millions includes a frenzied investment pitch about dragging icebergs from the North Pole to the Middle East. There was even an article in the 1978 issue of Popular Mechanics examining the logistics of iceberg relocation, as pointed out by Retroist.

While iceberg towing has proved effective for keeping oil rigs safe from collisions, the track record of mining icebergs for water — call it light geoengineering — is less than illustrious. As Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic wrote in an exhaustive history of iceberg schemes in 2011:

The crazy scheme side of the iceberg towing industry continues apace. And the breathless media reporting on such things continues as well. This is one of these ideas that no matter how many times you repeat it remains some wild guy’s wacky idea.

To paraphrase the salvage master: hold my iceberg.