Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Plan to tow iceberg to UAE 'not science fiction', claims businessman

Eyebrows have been raised at ambitious scheme but an Emirati businessman insists it can be a success

An iceberg floats in Andvord Bay, Antarctica. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters
An iceberg floats in Andvord Bay, Antarctica. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

An Emirati businessman who wants to bring an iceberg to UAE waters has insisted his proposal is “not science fiction” as he defended his ambitious goal in the face of scepticism.

Abdulla Alshehi, 40, attracted global attention after he gave a broadcast interview this week setting out further details of his scheme to spend tens of millions of dollars towing a giant iceberg from Antarctica to the coast of Fujairah.

Although some of the timescales reported have been optimistic - he hopes a ‘test run’ to either Australia to South Africa will now take place in early 2021 rather than later this year – he told The National the proposal will become a reality despite significant logistical and fundraising challenges.

The proposal is to harvest fresh water from the iceberg, which he believes would be more environmentally friendly and cost efficient than expensive desalination, which is used to provide much of the UAE’s clean water.

Abdulla Alshehi, pictured in 2015, plans to drag an iceberg to the UAE in an attempt to reduce reliance on desalination. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National 
Abdulla Alshehi, pictured in 2015, plans to drag an iceberg to the UAE in an attempt to reduce reliance on desalination. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National 

The idea of transporting icebergs large distances and using them as a water source has been mooted for decades, but has never worked. Mr Alshehi, an electronics engineer who authored a book about solving the UAE’s water shortage problems, insists he can succeed where others have failed.

When asked how he would respond to claims that the project is “a fantasy”, he said: “People before were sceptical that people would fly in the sky, now it is a reality, they were sceptical people would visit the moon. Science has advanced and knowledge has advanced tremendously.

“This is not science fiction, it will be reality. It is easier to tow an iceberg than to fly in the sky. With new projects, there will always be negative people.”

Elaborating on the plan, Mr Alshehi said the iceberg would ‘guided’ by barges and moved by ocean currents. He said icebergs already break off and float for thousands of kilometres north of Antarctica on ocean currents.

Under the proposal, a suitable iceberg would be identified by satellite and secured with a giant belt. Melting the iceberg closer to the arctic and then transporting the water, he said, would not work because of transport costs of the melted water.

One large iceberg could provide huge quantities of fresh, drinkable water – enough for around one million people for up to five years.

“The iceberg will be huge in size and weight,” he said. “No vessel in the world could tow it; we are talking about millions of tonnes here. So we will be utilising the ocean current to help us move these gigantic icebergs.”

Mr Alshehi estimated it will cost $80m to $100m for the trial run, and $100m to $150m to then bring a larger iceberg to the UAE, a journey that would take nine months and begin in 2022 at the earliest.

He is still fundraising but said he has signed agreements with various interested parties. It is a private venture with no involvement from the UAE government, which previously distanced itself from the plan - dismissing it as just a rumour.

It would be planned that the iceberg would arrive in the Gulf over winter, and harvested in a few months, before it melts. Mr Alshehi estimates it will lose 30 per cent of its mass en-route but would be large enough to survive the journey mostly intact.

Whatever happens, the idea has generated wide interest, with Mr Alshehi, the managing director of an Abu Dhabi consultancy firm National Advisor Bureau Ltd, featuring in news pages across the world.

He believes if the idea proves successful, it would not only be profitable, but also open up a new source of fresh water to drought-hit corners of the globe.

An environmental impact assessment, he said, shows moving icebergs would have a “minimal” impact to the eco system and environment, with thousands melting naturally into the sea every year.

“The main purpose is to help in resolving one of the world’s most important issues, the water crisis,” he said. “Currently 1.2 billion people around the world do not have access to clean water. So we are pleased this has attracted positive coverage around the world.”

Updated: July 11, 2019 08:21 PM

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